Lutèce Diary / A post-modern American in Paris, 40: The Gift (Le Cadeau) or, Pour en finir avec le Céline-o-mania

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Translations by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2020 Paul Ben-Itzak

A Sidney, pour les soins….et a Lewis, Jamie, Martin, et tout mes péres, qui rien n’avais obligé d’y etre mais qui se sont comporté comme tel. /To Sidney, for the care…. and to Lewis, Jamie, Martin, and all my fathers who nothing obligated to be but who comported themselves as such.

Prélude: Poète surréaliste chrétienne morte a Drancy, car née Juif

“Love thy neighbor”

Who noticed the toad cross the street? He was just a little man — a doll would not have been more miniscule. He dragged himself along on his knees — as if he were ashamed….? No! He has rheumatism, one leg remains behind, he drags it forward! Where is he going like that? He comes out of the sewer, the poor clown. No one has noticed this toad in the street. Before no one noticed me in the street, now children make fun of my yellow star. Happy toad! You don’t have a yellow star.” (Voir dessous pour le V.O. / See below for the original French version.)

— Max Jacob, Surrealist poet, comrade of Cocteau, Apollinaire, and Picasso, arrested by the Gestapo on February 24, 1944, in the Brittany village of Saint-Benoit-sur-Loire. In a note hastily scribbled on the train to the Orleans prison, Jacob, who since converting to Christianity before the first World War liked to write personalized proselytizing homilies for his colleagues and whose poetry was suffused with devotional tributes to Christ, wrote: “Dear Monsieur le Cure, Excuse this letter from a drowning man written with the complaisance of the gendarmes. I wanted to tell you that I’ll soon be in Drancy. I have conversions in process. I have confidence in God and in my friends. I thank Him for the martyrdom which now begins.” On March 5, Jacob succumbed to pneumonia at the Drancy way station outside Paris before he could be deported — or confessed. At Drancy, there were no priests. (Poem collected in “Max Jacob,” edited by Andre Billy, published by and copyright Editions Pierre Seghers, Lyon, February 15, 1946. Letter cited by Billy in “The death of Max Jacob,” Le Figaro, September 9, 1945.)

1932: The Semence

Paris, the Grands Boulevards, a winter evening in 1916. The young conscript, on furlough from the hospital where doctors are trying to determine if he’s crazy or just doesn’t want to return to the trenches of a crazy war, enters the Olympia nightclub and observes, as recounted by Louis-Ferdinand Céline in his 1932 “Voyage au bout de la nuit,” still considered by the French and American literary establishments to be the author’s safe, non-Anti-Semitic book (shortly after publication, it was translated into Russian by the French Communist super-star couple Louis Aragon and Elsa Triolet; New Directions still proudly hawks the English translation):

“Already in wartime our morose peace was sowing its seeds…. We could imagine what it would become, this hysteria, just from seeing it already agitating in the Olympia tavern. Below in the narrow, shady dancing cave with its 100 mirrors, it pawed the dust in the great desperation of the Négro-Judéo-Saxonne music. Brits and Blacks all mingling together. Levantines and Russians. They were everywhere, smoking, brawling, sad sacks and soldiers, crammed onto crimson sofas. These uniforms, which we barely remember anymore, would sow the seeds of today, this Thing which continues to germinate and would become a dung-hill a little later, with time.”

1940-45: The Harvest

Some 13 years after Louis-Ferdinand Céline thus fulminated (the parallels between his own trajectory and that of his first-person hero, “Ferdinand,” make the defense that an author doesn’t necessarily subscribe to the opinions of his personage dubious), the ‘semence’ he (and his publishers, including Gallimard) helped sow (in ‘Voyage’ and three pamphlets taxed as being anti-Semitic, although the Judeophobic grotesque Céline paints of himself and of the anti-Semitic rationale in general in the 1937 “Bagatelles for a massacre,” in which he also wrote: “In the leg of a dancer the world, its waves, all its rhythms, its follies, its views are inscribed…. The most nuanced poem in the world!,” the ‘bagatelles’ being ballets without music, makes that epithet problematic here) by furnishing civilized literary cover for his countrymen who would collaborate with the German occupiers in the Deportation of 76,000 of their Jewish neighbors, including 11,000 children, only 3,000 of whom would return from the death camps — Auschwitz was liberated 75 years ago this month — manifests its real-world toll on the sixth-floor balcony of a building on a corner of the rue Hauteville above the “Bonne Nouvelles” (Good News) Metro station, several blocks up the Grands-Boulevards from the Olympia, where a woman straddles the railing, distraught that the daughter arrested by a good French policeman after she was turned in by a good French neighbor has still not returned after the war, the room the woman has reserved for her child remaining vacant.

The precarious mental state of the woman had recently prompted her brother and his wife to return from the United States to France, where the wife will later give birth to three sons, the semence of a new generation of French Jews who have not lost hope in France. Two of the sons will grow up to become, respectively, a general practitioner and a dentist — my doctor and my dentist starting when I lived on the rue de Paradis up the street in the early 2000s — converting the apartment on whose balcony rail their aunt once teetered into a medical bureau, their offices separated by a waiting room decorated by posters of Satchmo blowing, Gabriel, blowing, his cheeks puffed up; Marilyn Monroe’s white skirt billowing from the gusts of wind rising out of a subway grating on location for “The Seven-Year Itch” to reveal her underwear; and Jean-Paul Belmondo ‘draguing’ the American Jean Seberg on the Champs as she hawks the New York Herald Tribune with its logo emblazoned across her chest in Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless,” this last poster a nod to what I’d always understood as the doctors’ mixed Franco-American heritage, their mother being an American citizen.

Warsaw 1938 / Paris 2019: Blood Memory or, How a lazy American doctor in Poland in 1938 helped restore my teeth in Paris in 2019

“What are you going to do with the poster?” I’d asked Dr. B at the first of what would turn out to be more than four months of excavating involving what seemed, between removing the debris of crumbling 50-year-old choppers and uninvited bone spurs, like 20 extractions, followed by several weeks of chiseling, adjusting, and refining the replacement troops, and a whole lot of blood-letting. After our rendez-vouses, I’d often test the adjustments by munching packaged chocolate-covered Belgian waffles, ‘arrosed’ by hot thermos Russian Earl Gray or Green Tea (when there hadn’t been any blood-letting), imbibed from my perch on the steps below the elevated sidewalk across from the doctors’ offices looking down the Boulevard, squinting my eyes and trying to see this quintessential Parisian vantage point like Pissarro, another imported French Jew, must have seen it when he painted “The Boulevard Montmartre on a Winter Morning” from a window of the Hotel Russe just down the street, 120 years earlier. The painting had been my favorite since I was a teenager growing up in San Francisco, as if this lieu was already implanted in my blood memory.

Dr. B being the only dentist who’s ever actually made my teeth better than they were before I submitted myself to his scalpel (sans parle de mon ame; no matter how brutal the dental work had been, I always felt sublime emerging on Hauteville and the Grands Boulevards afterwards as I sipped my tea, probably because of the care and assurance with which Dr. B treated me, patiently explaining the necessity for each step no matter how over-wrought my questions), I’d rushed to Paris after he’d announced that he would be retiring in July so that he could do for my lower mouth what he’d done for the upper in 2016, like Oscar re-building Six-Million Dollar Man Steve Austin to “make him better than he was.” (Dr. B charged me a lot less than that.) At my question about the poster (I’d hoped he’d offer it to me as a souvenir), he only shrugged his shoulders and smiled enigmatically. (Ironically, the first time I’d seen the film was in the Cinematheque Française’s dilapidated theater just below on the Boulevards. When Belmondo exhaled his final fumes after being mortally wounded, I was the only one in the theater who thought this was funny.)

Dr. B has been treating my teeth since 2003. Even my best Paris friend Marcel, an electrician who owns a lamp boutique up the street on the rue de la Fidelité, le Soleil de l’Est — his shop is down the hill from the Gare de l’Est, from which many of the French and foreign Jews were deported, probably including Marcel’s own grandparents — is incredulous when I declare that Dr. B is the only dentist I’ve ever actually looked forward to seeing, he’s so chic. No matter how many times I assure him — often stopping in at the boutique to talk politics on my way to Dr. B’s, knowing that after the appointment I won’t be able to open my mouth — Marcel inevitably shivers and explains, “Ever since I saw ‘Marathon Man’ I cringe at the very idea of going to the dentist’s.” I’ve known Marcel even longer than I’ve known Dr. B, since I began living on the rue de Paradis which Fidelité becomes (across the street from where Pissarro took his first Paris painting lessons in the atelier of Camille Corot, where Berthe Morisot was also a student), and asked him to re-attach a retro ’50s-style wall fixture my landlord had discarded. While I’d been aware for a while that Marcel was the child of a Holocaust survivor and the grandchild of Holocaust victims (the subject first came up when we discussed the anti-Semitic virages of the Right-wing National Front, whose founder Jean-Marie Le Pen was once fined for dismissing the gas chambers as “a detail of history”), I only recently learned the details: Like the late singer Serge Gainsbourg, Marcel’s father was hidden out during the war in the environs of Paris (unlike my dentist’s cousin, no one had ratted Marcel’s father out). This heritage probably explains why one of the rare subjects on which Marcel and I disagree is Israel. I had applauded the “End Zionist Racism” stickers that began popping up on Paris lamp-poles and bus shelters last Spring, excoriating Israel’s treatment (to use a euphemism) of Palestinians, and did not consider them anti-Semitic. (As in general I don’t consider anti-Zionism anti-Semitism, a ludicrous equivalence when Zionist soldiers are gunning down unarmed Semites in Gaza. Neither being Jewish in and of itself nor the Holocaust should get Israel a get out of International Criminal Court free card.) Until I realized that a big part of what alarmed Marcel was that the stickers were yellow. (Not withstanding what I just said in the previous parenthesis, coding should not be ignored.) As I don’t have a television, it took Marcel to alert me to the anti-Semitic remarks being issued by some of the more Right-wing members of the so-called “Yellow Vests,” the disparate protest movement which emerged last year, over-blown by the media. Marcel only learned of his father’s Holocaust history from his uncle, which is typical; Holocaust survivors often don’t like to talk about their experience.

Not only have I never seen “Marathon Man,” I have no personal Holocaust history, my own ancestors having been ‘fortunate’ to have been chased out of Eastern Europe (save a British grandmother whose parents may have been Iranian; she was brought up as an orphan in Canada) by the Cossacks before Hitler occupied it. When I visited Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Museum, in 1978 as part of a State Department delegation of American high school students, I had to conjure a conservatory experience playing Peter, the hero’s boyfriend, in “The Diary of Anne Frank” to move myself to tears. (We always cried offstage — during the last scene, when Otto Frank returns to the Secret Annex and learns of Anne’s diary — when we were supposed to be dead. Until a parent in the audience told us, “We can hear you!” Whenever we’d get too goofy in rehearsal, our director, Lewis Campbell, would remind us of our solemn task by shouting “BRAUSEBOT!,” the German word for shower. We loved to imitate this gruff-voiced declaration. Never mind that some of us were Jewish; we were just high school kids, and none of us had lived this experience.) One of the first Holocaust survivors I knew personally — my high school civics teacher, John Franklin, also the happiest man I ever knew, with a smile that radiated his entire face — once told us, with his slight European accent, that he thought there should be a statute of limitations for war crimes, including Nazi war crimes. (The first Holocaust survivor I knew was Hans Ingres, who with his wife Ingrid — her family hid him out in Holland during the War — hosted an annual ‘Herring Festival’ in the Northern California fishing community of Tamales Bay for their large tribe of adopted children and neighbors including my family. Pickled herring, creamed herring, fried herring, herring bread…..) When I finally got around to asking John to talk about his experience in the camps — during a 2012 visit to his home in Mill Valley, while sitting around a 1000-year-old redwood trunk projecting through a hole on his deck which constantly has to be widened to accommodate its swelling — it was too late; he was in the first stages of Alzheimer. The last time I reached him, by phone in 2014 from Paris, and asked John if he remembered who I was, he answered, “Vaguely.” When memory goes for a stroll it does not return.

In France, Jews (at least secular Jews) don’t even seem to like to reveal that they’re Jewish, as if they’re afraid of being rounded up again if they can be identified and localized. (In France, Vichy officials went farther than those in other occupied countries by registering Jews.) In this way Paris is not like San Francisco or New York, where finding out a new acquaintance is also Jewish is like discovering any other shared facet. (In conservatory, me and other Jewish kids never stopped good-naturedly ribbing my best friend — he played Otto Frank, and also Jesus in Godspell; for the latter, I’d famously insisted that the costume designer sew a Star of David on the butt of my pants; this was shortly after I returned from participating in the delegation to Israel — with jokes which played on his being ‘half-Jewish.’) Another reason for our ease with the Jewish part of our identities was that in the U.S. one can be Jewish without being religious — it’s considered a culture, even a race. (Ironically, if I have less Jewish pride in France than I had when I was younger in the U.S., it’s not because I have any fear of being rounded up but because the self-proclaimed Counsel of Representative Jewish Organizations’ reflexive defense of Israel no matter how many Palestinians it kills makes it harder to disassociate being Jewish with being a supporter of Israel. This for me is what makes statistics about supposedly rising anti-Semitism in France problematic; if a young Arab-French man calls me a “dirty Jew” — I’ve heard this phrase exactly once in 20 years, and it may not have been directed at me — is he really criticizing my ethnic appurtenance, or what he presumes, thanks to the Counsel, to be my lock-step support of a country which kills unarmed young Arabs?) The French in general reject this concept of cultural or racial Judaism because of what it has generated in the past (permitting, for example, even a well-known French Surrealist, Max Jacob, to be arrested for Deportation because Jewish more than 30 years after he’d converted to Catholicism, a conversion evident in many of his post-conversion poems). In my first months in Paris, I’d even (stupidly) cut off a French friend after she’d insisted that Judaism was not a race (thus, to my mind, telling me I could not be Jewish because I was not religious), abruptly walking away from her car after she stopped to pick up her clown costume.

My own theory on contemporary French Jews’ reluctance to identify themselves as such — even to friends and acquaintances who might be MOT (members of the Tribe, as John once explained the acronym to me) — is that this discretion protects them from being rounded up again when the day returns. How this has manifest itself practically for me is that except for a girl I dated whose name was Sophie Goldstein and another who proudly proclaimed herself a Jew for Jesus (Max would have been proud), in 20 years in France I haven’t had a single friend who I knew to be Jewish, except Marcel. And this only came out — that he was the child of a Holocaust survivor — in our concerned discussions of the National Front, which polled 34 percent in the last presidential elections and is in a good position to do better in the 2022 vote, given the (in my view largely unfair) railing against French president Emmanuel Macron, whose popularity had dipped to 30 percent in one recent poll. (My hope in the Green candidate, Yannick Jadot, was chastened recently when he chickened out from participating in a Paris demonstration against Islamophobia, a term which, unlike Anti-Semitism, which is bandied about too freely here, is typically only uttered by the French media in quotes, as if it doesn’t even exist. I am hammering on this point because if you are really concerned about a resurgence of anti-Semitism, the best way to agitate against it is to rail against intolerance in whatever guise and against whichever community it surfaces.)

…. Thus it was that until a late, overcast afternoon in February 2019 when I reclined in the dentist’s chair above the Grands Boulevards, my head lolling to the side, waiting for the Novocain to kick in so we could clear away more ivory rubble, except for a general idea that my neighborhood used to be a Jewish neighborhood, I had no idea that Dr. B and his brother were also MOT.

“I bet you’re going to miss that,” I’d observed, nodding at the zinc rooftops glistening under the light drizzle across Hauteville (outside the same window, I’d shortly learn, from which Dr. B’s aunt had been poised to jump more than 70 years ago) from my supine position in the chair. There was no need to elaborate; Dr. B and I have always shared an emerveillement for the quotidian joys Paris has to offer those with eyes to see. (As well as a frustration with certain elements of a changing French society, such as a national train company which seems determined to push everyone to the Internet. On another afternoon, after I’d huffed up the six flights of stairs — the elevator being out of order for a month — and explained how I was late because the train company had ‘sent me promenading’ to four different stations from the Left to the Right bank just to try to change one ticket, Dr. B. sympathized, recounting his experience trying to change a ticket at the company’s boutique on the Grands Boulevards, only to discover that it had been shuttered. We also both prefer the public radio chain “FIP” to “France Musique” as operating music. “Too much talk!” on the latter.)

On this particular afternoon, we were alone. “Amélie” (not her real name) — Dr. B’s assistant, who’s also been ‘with me’ since the debut — “had to go home early so she could pick up her kids. The snow is one-foot deep in the suburbs! I had to cancel all my morning appointments.”

I’d come to Dr. B to restore my teeth. On this wintry afternoon, prompted no doubt by the absence of his assistant which meant we were alone, he’d decided to give me something just as precious: memory.

A Winter Afternoon off the Boulevard Montmartre

Dr. B began his account anodynely enough, this story of his family, this history of a shared heritage I hadn’t been aware of and whose commonality he was about to enrich, this story which would reveal how a lazy American doctor in Warsaw in 1939 saved my teeth in Paris in 2019. He began it, this transmission, in a manner that made it seem at first like he was just killing time until the anesthetic kicked in and he could operate, like any dentist. But this was not just any kind of small talk, this was not just any dentist, and this would become a lot more than any drizzle-infused late winter afternoon in Paris. It would become a gift, and it would change the way I perceived those Grands Boulevards, the way I experienced them, the lives I lived and the ghosts, the phantoms who accompanied me walking down these boulevards I’d roamed for 20 years, often to the soundtrack of Montand rhapsodizing about the “so many things” they offered, and had known, via the prism of Pissarro, like Dr. B and me a Parisian Jew, for 40. It would even restore the rapport with the Holocaust I used to have, first instilled in me by John Franklin and Lewis Campbell (as well by a junior high school art teacher who showed us a film that must have been Alain Resnais’s “Night and Fog”) also 40 years ago, before it was evacuated by what has become Israel’s usurpation of the memory of this mass murder for base political ends. (As Emmanuel Macron indicated at Yad Vashem this week in warning against invoking the Holocaust to justify contemporary political ends, as Israel’s prime minister shamelessly did at the same ceremony in using the occasion to rail against Iran.) It would take this memory away from the politicians and give it back to me. It would make it personal. And make it mine.

“L’usage veut”

After I did my alto number — despite my explaining to Dr. B that crying out “Eeh eeh eeh!” when he sticks the needle into my gums is my way to evacuate the pain, he inevitably tries to calm me with “Uh uh uh!” — we had some time before my mouth went numb and he could begin to work, so Dr. B told me, “My son’s coming home! He’s been in New York for eight years and he’s had enough of it.” He’d once told me about a trip he and his wife had made to the States to make sure that his American citizenship would carry over to his son. The kid works for an Internet company that delivers recipes and the ingredients to realize them to eight million clients across the United States. Toujours donc dans la domaine des metiers de la bouche comme son pere; the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. “Americans don’t like to cook,” Dr. B explained. Because the son’s wife doesn’t have a lot of family — “her mother is from Finland and speaks a Hungarian patois” — she’s ready to return to France with him.

We compared Brooklyn notes – Dr. B went to visit his boy there once, and was particularly impressed by “a little park. Fort….” “Green! Not so little.” When I lived in Greenwich Village in the late ’90s, I’d commemorate July 4 by walking and eating my way across ethnic America, a promenade which took me across the Brooklyn Bridge and through Fort Green (mostly Black; White Castle burgers) and various sections of Williamsburg (Jewish; kischka and chocolate and cinnamon hamentoschen), Williamsburg further on (Puerto Rican; squares for making Mexican hot chocolate, on sale at the bodegas), and Bohemian (root curry at a vegetarian café that might have been called Oz) when they were real Bohemians, the pioneers that settled Brook-Land in 1995 when the rents were still cheaper than Manhattan and before Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and the rest of most of the borough became BoBo or Hipster. “My last time in New York,” I shared, “I lived in Greenpoint, the Polish section. Whenever I walked into a Polish deli the saleswomen would start talking to me in Polish. They just assumed I was one of them.” A MOT quoi.

What had impressed Dr. B the most on his first and only visit to New York was how the Haitian immigrants spoke better French than he did. “One time we walked into a restaurant, and I hadn’t gotten two (English) words out of my mouth before the waiter guessed I was French. Then he used this Old School French phrase that’s barely evoked anymore, it’s so formal: ‘Le usage veut’ (custom would have it) that one leaves a tip here.'” Because in France a 15% service charge is included in the check, French visitors to the U.S. apparently don’t always think to add a tip. “I can tell you the reverse isn’t true,” I quipped. “French waiters here never tell American customers that the custom veut that they don’t need to leave a tip.” Dr. B thought this was funny, as he did earlier when I told him how the previous week, right after he’d taken out three teeth, I’d gone straight to a vernissage near the Pere Lachaise cemetery (where Pissarro is buried… in the Jewish section) where I’d proceeded to drague — pick up — two Parisiennes at the same time. “Too bad you’re retiring,” I’d added. “I could write you a testimonial: ‘After Dr. B pulled three of my teeth, I picked up two women.’ And that was with half my teeth still missing. Just think, after you make the second denture, there won’t be any women left in Paris for the other guys.” He liked this too.

When the work was done and we were sitting at his desk, Dr. B paused after dawdling over his appointment book to fix our next rendez-vous, his pen still in the air as he looked down at the book and then, out of nowhere, with absolutely no pretense, began his story, which might have been mine had my ancestors not been chased out of Europe before the Holocaust. But only after he’d nonchalantly asked me where my parents came from, as if needing to confirm first, without directly posing ‘the Jewish question,’ that his story would have a special, essential resonance for me, an American Jew — a fellow American Jew — who by the accidents of history did not have any direct line to the Holocaust, had not lost anyone. After I answered that my parents had origins in Ukraine/Russia (depending on who had Kiev at the time), Georgia, Romania, and England by way of Canada — my ancestors all having had the luck to have been chased out of Europe in the pogroms before the Holocaust — he began the story of his.

“You know, not only were both my parents Polish, they came from the same small town.” (Parenthetically, he added that this is why he prefers a certain brand of Polish vodka whose name I can’t pronounce, but which has a blade of some kind of plant in the bottle; it’s from the same region as Dr. B’s parents.) The reason this was funny is that this village isn’t where they actually got together. They both left Poland before the war, but not for the same place. She went to America (we’ll get to that), and he (I’m not sure I followed all of this part), to avoid getting drafted by the Polish army, went to France and joined the Foreign Legion, then to America, where he was told he’d have to serve in that army. “’But I don’t speak English.’ ‘Doesn’t matter.’

“He drove a Sherman tank” for the Americans, Dr. B. went on. “During the Normandy invasion, he fought in Dieppe. He was such a good shot that instead of using the built-in gun in the turret he would use a machine gun and fire through the little hole in front. He could fix a target at long range, but the vulnerability of the Sherman tanks was that once someone got within 10 feet of you, you couldn’t see them. So the Germans would sneak up at the side and toss grenades in, or slip them under the tank.

“One day he told me that he would often wake up in the middle of the night because ‘I shot someone and sometimes I see him still running towards me with his hands in the air.’ He was in the tank, and saw a man driving a pony cart. Suddenly the man jumped off and came running towards the tank with his hands in the air. My father had five seconds to decide if the guy was trying to give himself up, or if it was a trick. And it didn’t involve just him — he was responsible for five lives.” So he shot and killed the man. “It turned out that a cabbage had fallen off his cart and the man was just trying to retrieve it….

“My mom and dad had actually met before the war, at a dance in their Polish village. He was friends with her older brother. When he told her, ‘We’ll meet again,’ she was doubtful, as she already knew she was probably going to America because of the growing discrimination towards the Jews. Well, when he got to America he looked up her brother” — they were living in Iowa — “found her, and within three weeks they were married and back in France.”

It was what happened to his father’s sister and my dentist’s cousin in Occupied Paris that made it urgent for his father and mother to return to France.

“Her child, her daughter, was able to obtain false papers, but within three months a neighbor turned her in and she was arrested — by the French police. My aunt kept a room in the apartment vacant for years, hoping her daughter would reappear after the war.” At this point Dr. B made a sweeping gesture around the office and I realized that its examination rooms and waiting room had been that apartment.

“He had to come back,” Dr. B explained about his father’s decision to bring Dr. B’s mother back to France, “because my aunt was ready to kill herself. He even found her once” — at this he gestured towards the wall-length windows looking out over the zinc rooftops across the street (during one appointment I’d nodded my head sideways at these roofs just before Dr. B took out the three teeth and said, “C’est ca, Paris” and he’d nodded) and mimicked someone scaling the barrier and jumping.

I’ve saved the most serendipitous element for last.

“You know how my mother was saved? Her parents had waited until the last moment before deciding to try to send her to America, as the sentiment towards the Jews deteriorated. You know, before the war it wasn’t like that. The Jewish kids and the Catholic kids went to school together. When it came time for church class, the Jewish kids would leave the room. When it came time for Jewish religious class, the Catholic kids would leave.” Her parents knew it was time to send their daughter – my dentist’s mother – to the U.S. when an older Jewish girl was stoned.

“By that time, it wasn’t Ellis Island any more” — the point of entry to the U.S. — “where immigrants had to pass a physical before being admitted to the U.S., but Warsaw.” (American authorities — this is my insertion — sometimes abetted by the American Jewish establishment weren’t letting refugees get so close to New York without screening them first in their home countries. One boat of 1500 refugees was even turned back to Europe at New York Harbor, half the passengers later perishing in the camps.) “She had to have a medical exam because if you were sick, you wouldn’t be accepted into the United States. She was 12 or 13 — actually, we don’t know her age,” because — like the girls being separated into you work, you go to the gas chamber lines on arrival at the death camps, she probably lied about it to increase her chances of getting into the U.S. . “The problem was that she had a bad left eye.” He pointed to his. “So when it was time for the eye test, after the first row she couldn’t see anything. But she didn’t hesitate. She called out every letter as if she knew it.” Fortunately — here’s where the lazy doctor in Warsaw in 1938 saving my teeth in Paris in 2019 part comes in — the doctor wasn’t looking at the chart, but at Dr. B’s mom. By the confidence with which she named the letters as if she actually could read them, he assumed her vision was perfect.

“Chance is a funny thing,” Dr. B observed, shaking his head.

After I left Dr. B’s office, strolling at this nocturnal hour towards the Place de la Republique up the Grands Boulevards, which I’d first encountered in that tableau by Pissarro, a French Jewish painter who’d died of old age 37 years before the Nazis aided by Vichy might have gotten to him, and feeling good to be surrounded by and at one with all these Parisians hurrying home from work in Paris on a brisk drizzly winter evening in 2019, I felt like I was in another place — or maybe haunted by the spirits of the same place in a more sinister time where I too might have been picked up any moment — whose memory had just been offered to me. By opening up his family history book — recounted in an easy manner, not with any airs of tragedy or bitterness — my dentist had made this experience concrete. He’d made it mine.

Afterward: Pour en finir avec le Celine-o-mania

In his 1990 historical novel “La Mémoire des vaincus,” which recounts the saga of European anarcho-syndicalism in the 20th century, Michel Ragon has his hero write a piece for an anarchist rag in the 1950s, when Céline was ostracized as a collaborator, in which he asks, “Does anyone reproach [Paul] Claudel for having called Proust a ‘Sodomite Jew’?” (I reproach Paul Claudel for having his sister Camille, Rodin’s model, lover, and artistic superior, interned for 26 years because she didn’t bathe herself or change her clothes enough for her neighbors on the Ile St.-Louis.) “All France, or just about, was anti-Jewish during the epoch in which Céline wrote his pamphlets. Céline was neither worse nor better than the other professional anti-Semites; he merely served as the fall guy. France vomited on him all the anti-Semitism on which it had fed. It turned Céline into an abject being to mask its own ignominy.” And expunging Céline didn’t cure France of this scourge; in his 1956 novel “Trompe-l-oeil,” Ragon treats post-War anti-Semitism in France.

On my way to meet with Ragon in the home he shares with his wife off the Grands Boulevards last Spring — somewhere between Dr. B’s offices and the Olympia — I noticed a poster advertising a new one-man show at the Pocket Theater in Montparnasse about Céline’s last years, 1960-61. On a twilight promenade along the Right Bank of the Seine earlier that winter, when most of the green zinc bookstands were shuttered, I came upon a bouquiniste carefully wrapping cellophane around his Léo Malet pulp novels, from whose covers beckoned busty babes, the man insulated from the winds whipping up from the river only by the rusted green-iron lids of his stand and a cape and cloak that made him look like Aristide Bruant, the one-time proprietor of the Chat Noir. Noticing that I was lingering in front of a shrine he’d set up for the author, he perked up and asked, “Interested in Céline?” Trying to show off, I cited the episode from Ragon’s book — pointing out that the author “was a comrade,” Ragon having also been a bouquiniste. At this the man pointed to an article laminated to the underside of the rusty lid above the Céline shrine. After I’d craned my neck impossibly to try to read the piece, he explained the gist: “Céline’s problem wasn’t with Jews per se, but a certain type of behavior associated with a certain segment of Jews, whatever quarter it came from.” When I asked him if he had “Voyage to the end of night,” he showed me three difference editions at three different escalating prices according to the vintage, all beyond my budget. I finally found a price I could afford — 2 Euros bundled with Zola’s “L’oeuvre,” the story of a painter who combines elements of Cezanne, Manet, and Monet, and Jean Genet’s “The Maids.” Given the stereotypical descriptions of lazy Africans in which “Voyage to the end of night” traffics, the endroit where I bought the book was ironic: A rummage sale to benefit and in the courtyard of a non-profit, Grands Voisins (Big Neighbors), up the street from the Luxembourg which serves recent immigrants — most of them from African countries.

When I asked Ragon during our talk about this resurgent Céline-o-Mania (a term the author himself employs in the ‘Bagatelles’) — besides the play and the bouquiniste’s shrine, Radio France’s pseudo-intellectual chain France Culture had recently devoted a week-long special summer series to him, even interviewing a supposedly Jewish book-seller who was a big defender and managing to elicit a grudging appreciation from the famed Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld — and reminded him of his hero’s defense of Céline, he said “Yes, but authors have a special responsibility” to pay attention to the impact of their words.

At another rummage sale, this one on the outskirts of the Marco Polo or Explorers’ Garden which abuts the Luxembourg (the Paris Meridian — the predecessor to Greenwich Mean Time — on which Notre Dame, the Luxembourg, the Marco Polo with Carpeaux’s sculpture-fountain of four naked goddesses and their horses representing “the Four Corners of the World” being doused with water spouted up at them by a ring of turtles, and the toilet where I once rescued 2000 years of Western, Eastern, and Oriental philosophy are all anchored is my personal Mulberry Street, I see everything on it, often through Dr. Seuss’s eyes), I scored a copy of the April 1969 issue of the cultural magazine Planete which reproduces Céline’s last and only filmed interview. Realized by the magazine’s editor, Louis Pauwels, in 1959 in collaboration with André Brissaud, the interview was banned for eight years by the O.R.T.F., the French public radio and television chain. Banished to a millstone villa overgrown with weeds in Meudon (where Rodin also lived for years) where the only indications of the residents’ identities are plaques for “Lucette Almanzor, Dance Lessons” — the author’s wife, Lucette, died last year at the age of 107, 58 years after the husband whose oeuvre she’d fiercely defended for more than half a century — and another, partly covered by pine needles, for “Doctor Destouches,” the author himself being a physician who provided medical advice to the poor (like the hero of ‘Voyage’), Céline’s defiant attitude towards his interlopers and their often idiotic questions is admittedly seductive for anyone who’s had their fill of the general superficiality of the French mainstream media and its tendency towards ‘divertissement’ or info-tainment (I’m not saying it’s not the same in the United States, but this is what I know). Particularly when Pauwels asks him, “If you had to die right now, which would not please God, what would be your last thought?” and the author abruptly terminates the interview: “Ah! So it’s come to that has it?! Au revoir et merci! Ah! I think that just about does it. I don’t have anything against you, but, my God, you should mind your own business….” and conducts him to the door. But not before he lets go with one last bit of all-encompassing invective, stopping at the fence and pointing an angular finger at the Seine:

“The other day I walked down there to have a drink. I sat down on a café terrace…. I watched the crowd pass by. The bandy-legged, the crooked [the term Céline employs here, ‘crochus,’ which can also mean ‘hook-nosed,’ is also a derogatory term for Jews which Maupassant among others has employed], the poorly-wiped; and the females…. The worse, in fact, were the females. Bundles of fat waddling their asses. So content with themselves. The well-fed, quoi, good for little more than receiving kicks in the ass without complaining. There was one, one only, in the group, he was good-looking and solid, but with an idiotic air, no one home inside. Alors, quoi, there’s nothing left for the Chinese to do but to come on over, all the way to the Dordogne if they want, by foot, no rush, from Peking. Not the Russians. No, the Russians, they’re no more than the atomic scientists for China. And the Chinese, we’ll tell them: Meow, Meow, Head over there [presumably the Dordogne, where this 21st-century American Jew descended from European Jews now lives], to the land of the Sun and of those who couldn’t give a fig. And they’ll arrive, Monsieur, they’ll arrive, their toothpicks ahead of them, until they croak from the wine and the foie gras, to take their turn at easy living, at foie…; they’ll die from it but you’ll already have been dead for a long time, all of you, and so will I.”

Earlier in the interview, Pauwels asks Céline to name the authors to whom he feels the closest, as well as those who seem the most removed from him.

“Writers? I’m only interested in those who have as a style; if they don’t have a style, they don’t interest me. And it’s a rare thing, a style, Monsieur, it’s rare. But stories, the streets are full of them; I see them everywhere, stories, the police stations are full of them, the prisons are full of them, our lives are full of them. Everyone has a story, a million stories.”

“But isn’t there a writer…?”

“A writer? Ah!, indeed, Monsieur. There’s one, two, three for each generation. There are thousands of writers, but they’re just meager muddled unreliables…. They purr in their phrases, they repeat what someone else has said. They pick a story, a good story, and then they recount it. This doesn’t interest me. I’ve stopped being a writer to become a chronicler, n’est-ce pas? Thus I’ve put my skin on the table, because, you must not forget one thing: The grand inspirer is death. If you don’t lay your own skin on the line, if you don’t put your own skin on the table, you don’t have anything. You have to pay the price! If it doesn’t cost anything, you’ve missed the mark, and even more than missed the mark. And so we only have writers for whom their work hasn’t cost them anything, which is free, which is gratuitous. And that which is gratuitous, which doesn’t cost anything, stinks of being gratuitous.”

If I agree, even applaud Céline on the general principle — writing that doesn’t cost anything, in which the writer doesn’t in some manner risk his own skin, isn’t worthwhile — the problem in this case is that with “Voyage au bout de la nuit” and even, in the context of 1937 and the Occupation which saw it re-issued with gusto by collaborationist publishers, “Bagatelles pour un massacre” and the other pamphlets is that beyond his post-war ostracism, beyond being an outcast relegated to a not-so-uncomfortable suburb on the outskirts of Paris far from his dear Montmartre, it wasn’t Céline who paid the price for his venomous prose. It wasn’t his own skin he was putting on the table.

Epilogue: “Amour du Prochaine” (Originale version of Max Jacob poem above)

Qui a vu le crapaud traverser une rue ? c’est un tout petit homme : une poupée n’est pas plus miniscule. Il se traîne sur les genoux : Il a honte, on dirait…? Non ! il est rhumatisant, une jambe reste en arrière, il la ramène ! où va-t-il ainsi ? il sort de l’égout, pauvre clown. Personne n’a remarqué ce crapaud dans la rue. Jadis personne ne me remarquait dans la rue, maintenant les enfants se moquent de mon étoile jaune. Heureux crapaud ! tu n’as pas d’étoile jaune.

— Max Jacob, cited in Billy, André, “Max Jacob,” Editions Pierre Seghers, Lyon, February 15, 1946.

Bibliography

Billy, André, “Max Jacob,” Editions Pierre Seghers, Lyon, February 15, 1946.

Billy, André, “The death of Max Jacob,” Le Figaro, September 9, 1945.

Céline, Louis-Ferdinand, “Voyage au bout de la nuit,” Gallimard, Paris, 1932.

Céline, Louis-Ferdinand, “Bagatelles pour un massacre,” Paris, 1937.

Frank, Anne, “The Diary of Anne Frank.”

Pauwels, Louis, “Et Céline s’expliqua,” published in “La nouveau Planete,” Paris, April 1969.

Ragon, Michel, “La Mémoire des vaincus,” Albin Michel, Paris, 1990.

Ragon, Michel, “Trompe-l-oeil,” Albin Michel, Paris, 1956

Victor Hugo versus the Comédie-Française (Part 2): The Appeal

hugo one portraitsLeft and Right (from the Arts Voyager Archives): From Lot 1 of the Collection Hugo auction at Christie’s Paris, April 4, 2012: Atelier Hugo-Vacquerie (Charles Hugo or Auguste Vacquerie), “Portraits of Victor Hugo, 1853-55.” Four salt prints representing Victor Hugo in Jersey, the first of the Channel Islands where he took refuge with his family in 1852; in 1855 they’d move to Guernesey. Est. pre-sale: 4,000-6,000 Euros. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

Introduced and translated by Paul Ben-Itzak

(Second of two parts. To read our translated excerpts of the first trial, before the Commercial Tribune of Paris, in which Victor Hugo sought to force the Comédie-Française to fully honor its contracts to perform three of his plays — including Hugo’s testimony about the larger stakes involved, for both the theater and the Romantic movement of which he was the champion — click here. If you have not already done so, please support our ongoing  arts, culture, and literary coverage and translation of French authors and history by designating your donation via PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to ask about donating by check.)

In Romain Gary’s 1975 “Your whole life is ahead of you” (published, by Mercure de France, not insignificantly under the false name of Emil Ajar– a photo of the fictive author illustrates the back cover), an elderly French Arab monsieur who is slowly going blind and probably losing his wits passes his days on a bench outside the cosmopolitan Belleville apartment building in which the pre-teenaged (also Arab French) narrator lives with an elderly French-Jewish woman who boards the children of whores. In the left pocket of his suit-jacket he retains a copy of the Koran; in the right, a copy of (as he refers to him) “Monsieur Hugo.”

If we’ve chosen to translate and reproduce, in their near entirety, contemporaneous legal journals’ accounts of the proceedings accompanying Victor Hugo’s 1837 lawsuit against the Comédie-Française to impel France’s largest theater to honor its contracted engagements to perform three of his plays and pay modest damages for not having yet done so, it’s not just because Hugo’s lengthy and eloquent elocutions in the two trials are themselves compelling dramatic material. Nor because of the validity of Hugo’s incisive explanation that what’s at stake — what drove him to take his occasional employer to court — is not merely his personal rights as an author but the fate of a new school of literature to which the Comédie-Française (the only publicly-funded theater and the only theater with a literary bent), the literary establishment as represented by a conservative faction of the Academie Française, and a ‘coterie’ of ‘bureaucrats’ at the Interior Ministry have systematically sought to bar the route. Nor even for the resonance this battle has in a contemporary France where the Parisian culturati and mainstream media still tend to favor a narrow coterie of their ‘chou-chous’ and cronies. (It’s not uncommon for hosts at the State-owned middle-brow radio chain France Culture, who went on strike this week — which means they only return to the air-waves to let listeners know how well their strike is going — to use their programs to hawk the books of their fellow hosts and commentators, nor films of which the chain is an official sponsor.) It’s also because at a time when this same media often chooses to defend lay values through the vector of a negative, that is to say by incessant railing over the supposed imminent menace posed to these values, and lay society, by a headscarf, with the resultant potential stigmatization of any Muslim woman who chooses to cover her head, the vivid testimony of Victor Hugo, the most sterling representation of those values in one individual, provides a positive example, or clarion call, of what they actually mean and represent and of the positive cultural manifestations they protect, promote, and produce. An opportunity to, rather than stigmatize  these women because they don’t conform to our conception of lay values — thus, by imposing a negative — positively impress them with the luster of the lay offer (presuming, as the opponents of the headscarf often do, that they’re not already hip to it) when it comes to moral values and of the cultural offer adhering to, and profiting from, these values puts at their finger-tips. (In Hugo’s case, opening the doors of the nation’s leading and only public theater to a whole school of literature.)

The enthralling testimony of Victor Hugo — which constitutes the heart of the appeal proceedings reproduced below in our translation, and in which he simply seeks to assert rights already sanctioned by existing law, explains the larger stakes, and even identifies his real opponent and thus the real enemy in these stakes, “the bureaucrat” (the French word, ‘commis,’ can also be translated as ‘clerk’ or ‘sales assistant’) — provides a vital reminder that the most effective and inspiring way to diffuse lay values is not to stigmatize the personal religious choices of some members of a minority group but to continue to educate citizens about the inherent value of lay society as already promoted and championed in the stirring words and exemplary lives of Victor Hugo, of Voltaire, of Camus, of Daniel Cohn-Bendit.

What if — for example — instead of wasting half of the air time allotted for interviewing two of the authors of a new 3,000-word, three-tome “Koran of the Historians” on a recent edition of his France Culture drive-time show in grilling the scholars about whether the Koran mandates the wearing of the headscarf (the Orthodox kipa or typically ‘moche’ Hassidic wig somehow never seems to come up), Guillaume Erner, who is so obsessed with this subject he must have nightmares about it, had asked them about possible correspondences and correlations between the Koran and the thinking of Victor Hugo? And what if such a discussion had won new adherents among some of these same headscarf-wearing women? And inspired them to rush out and get their own copies of “Monsieur Hugo,” to accompany them concomittently with the Koran? (And more kipa-donning French Jews and habit-wearing French nuns to do the same.)

It is partly with this end in mind that we now turn the floor over to Monsieur Victor Hugo, his attorney, and the attorney for the Comédie-Française, preceded by our summation of this second trial.

Victor Hugo versus the Comédie-Française
Court Royale de Paris
(Presiding judge Monsieur Séguier)
Session of December 5, 1837

As reported by French legal journals, reproduced in “Victor Hugo – Theatre Complete,” in the edition published by J. Hetzel, Bookseller – Publisher, Paris, 1872, and translated by Paul Ben-Itzak

 

(Following the Commercial Tribune’s November 20, 1837 ruling ordering the Comédie-Française, in the person of its director, to pay Victor Hugo 6,000 francs in damages and interests for having failed to honor its contracts to perform Hugo’s “Marion de Lorme,” “Hernani,” and “Angelo” — the second of which singularly ushered in the era of Romanticism, the school of which the author was the crowned chief — and the court’s ordering the theater’s director to schedule performances of the three tragedies by specific deadlines as agreed to in the contracts or face fines of 150 francs per day, the organization filed an appeal before the Royal Court.

Much of the appeal proceedings focused on the lawyers for the two sides’ reiterations and bolstering of their cases already addressed in the first trial — and thus in our previous translation of those sessions — and doesn’t need repeating here. But salient details furnished by the attorneys for both sides during this second trial are worth translating for the way they illuminate the popular and boisterous appreciation for Hugo at the time; the refusal by the Comédie-Française, part of whose excuse for not honoring its contracts with Hugo was the alleged mitigated box office receipts for the three plays, to produce records supporting this argument; Hugo’s lawyers producing receipts which suggested the contrary, that the classical playwrights who dominated the theater’s repertory often did much worse at the box office than Hugo, whose plays’ average box-office intake also exceeded that of the Comédie-Française’s leading star; and how Hugo was ready to surrender his meager State stipend when even the barest suggestion of conflict of interest arose.

But most of all this second and last trial — the Royal appeals court would uphold the commercial tribunal’s ruling in the author’s favor — is noteworthy for another improvised speech by Victor Hugo who, once again, signaled the larger questions at stake, specifically: Who controls what the public gets to see? And who lurks behind the effective barring of the country’s only State-funded, literary theater to an entire school of new work?

Voila the pertinent highlights. As with our earlier account, text presented within brackets is the translator’s; the rest is translated from the contemporaneous accounts of the Gazette des Tribunaux:)

As soon as the doors opened, a sizable crowd poured into the courtroom, among them a large number of writers and dramatic artists.

Monsieur Victor Hugo had some difficulty finding a place to sit on the benches reserved for him, already invaded by lawyers.

Maitre Delangle [attorney for the Comédie Française] took the floor with these words:

“In 1829, Monsieur Victor Hugo submitted to the Comédie ‘Marion de Lorme’: he was the head of this school which, paving new roads, made the claim and manifested the hope of reviving literature. The work was read [by the committee which decides which plays to perform], received; the contract was created; but the censor blocked the performances; this intervention established force majeure [a legal term still invoked today, typically to qualify a natural castastrophe that impedes a theater or other entertainment facility from fulfilling an engagement], and the play was cancelled.

“In 1830, ‘Hernani’ was accepted and mounted with care; Mademoiselle Mars performed the leading role; everything was done to incite the curiosity of the public.

“A newspaper, giving its opinion on my pleading during the Commercial Tribune trial, said that I was not a ‘man of literature.’

“I don’t have any pretensions to this title; but permit me to recall, for its singularity, that certain spectators, on the occasion of the new piece, surpassed every known limit of admiration, and that, in their enthusiasm, they tried to impose their sentiments in a manner that was hardly literary: It needs to be recalled that there was pounding on the orchestra chairs; furthermore, this served as another incitement to public curiosity.”

[Here Delangle noted that when censorship was abolished following the 1830 revolution which toppled King Charles X and restored the Republic, Hugo opposed the return of “Marion de Lorme” to the Comédie-Française repertory for the “honorable motive” that it might be seen as casting aspersion on the dethroned king; at the time Hugo explained that he didn’t think it fair to pile on on somebody who was already down for one’s own pecuniary advantage. Adding that the author subsequently arranged for the Theater de la Porte-Saint-Martin — still standing today — to give 68 performances of the play, the Comédie’s lawyer concluded that the contract, ‘thus broken two times,’ was no longer binding. If his subsequent reference to another production, of Hugo’s “Le roi s’amuse,” seems off-topic because that drama was not one of the works concerned in the disputed contracts — Delangre seems to have evoked the earlier play in order to be able to mock Hugo’s contention that he is the victim of a ‘literary intrigue,’ noting that in the case of “Le roi s’amuse” his legal opponent was the royal censors, and he lost — it’s worth remarking because of his legitimate point that the cancellation of that production cost the actors of the Comédie Française, in effect the owners of the troupe, 20,000 francs. The rest of the attorney’s pleading essentially consisted of contesting that the Comédie’s director, Védel, should be held personably liable for the 6,000 francs in damages and interests awarded to the author by the Commercial Tribunal, as decreed by that court; contending that Hugo has always been generously remunerated by the organization; and insisting that the author’s own motives in bringing the case are not the high-minded literary and public interest ones he invoked during the first trial — of fighting the Romantic school’s exclusion from the theater and the public’s thus being deprived of this work– but financial. Insinuations that Maitre Paillard de Villeneuve, Hugo’s lawyer, would shortly devastate.

Shortly after taking the floor, Paillard de Villeneuve arrived at the essential:]

“It comes down to knowing whether the contracts that the Comédie Française requested — that it implored [Hugo to agree to] as an act of mercy — should be executed to the profit of Monsieur Victor Hugo, as they have been to the profit of the theater. This is the only relevant question of the trial.

“Before we get to this, a few words on the facts.

“In 1829, Monsieur Victor Hugo wrote ‘Marion de Lorme,’ of which the performances were halted following a censor’s veto. In transmitting this order to Monsieur Victor Hugo, Monsieur the minister of the interior sent him as compensation the duplicate of a money order which augmented to 6,000 francs the pension of 2,000 francs that he owed to the spontaneous good wishes of Louis XVIII. Monsieur Hugo refused this pension; no matter how much the minister insisted, he persisted in this refusal; and, later on, in 1832, when on the occasion of [the censorship proceedings involving] “Le roi s’amuse” he saw himself constrained to plead against the minister of the interior, he renounced of his own volition this 2,000-franc pension, which seemed to be held against him….

“It seems appropriate to recall these facts in a discussion in which we appear to be accused of putting monetary questions ahead of all others. I might also recall, in the name of an author whose plays we seek to have performed in the name of justice, that in 1830 Monsieur Hugo, after the abolition of censorship, refused to allow ‘Marion de Lorme’ to be performed, because he did not feel comfortable exploiting political passions to sell tickets for a literary work, and he had no intention of banking on a hit injurious to a fallen dynasty.”

The advocate enumerated the various contracts in question, and whose violation he linked to intrigues by the [culturati] and to a monopoly system which shut the doors of the Theatre-Français to an entire literary genre.

“They started out by framing this as a financial question,” the lawyer continued. “It’s important to respond to this. If the Comédie-Française, they claimed, retreated before the execution of contracts, it was because said execution threatened the theater with a dreadful deficit: keeping its word spelled for it inevitable ruin. Let’s examine this contention:

“There exists for the theater, in evaluating box-office receipts, a kind of thermometer which indicates the most prosperous situation. This is the box-office receipts brought in when Mademoiselle Mars is performing.

“So: During the winter of 1835, a favorable season, as we know, the average of these receipts was 2,618 francs and 95 centimes: this goes from the strongest, that for ‘The Misanthrope,’ which was 4,321 francs, to the weakest, that for “The School of Old Men,” which was only 1,230 francs (which proves, by the way, that the Comédie-Française is not always so rigorous as it claims in executing the requirement that it cancels the run of any work which doesn’t break even [by bringing at least 1,500 francs per performance, as the Comédie’s lawyer had claimed in the first trial.]).

“And yet, the average nightly box-office receipts for the 85 performances of Monsieur Victor Hugo’s work — all of which took place during the summer season — was 2,914 francs.

“Even allowing for the five performances of ‘Angelo,’ which took place with this trial already in view and in circumstances which I’ll describe a little later, the average was still 2,856 francs. And if we subtract the expenses of the theater — based on the figures the theater itself has provided us with — the resulting net profits for the theater from the performances of the two works by Monsieur Hugo, ‘Angelo’ and ‘Hernani,’ came to 125,000 francs.

“These are without doubt but miserable details, I’m well aware; but after all one must respond with precise numbers to the strange lamentations of this theater.

“We would have liked for the Comédie-Française to have allowed us, by providing its financial records, to compare what’s been called the pecuniary situation of Monsieur Hugo with that of the playwrights most favored by the theater.

“This information was refused. But I was able to procure these figures anyway: So, the average box-office receipts of one of these authors is 1,917 francs; that of the other, a tragic poet, 1,803 francs.; and yet we can easily see the singular favor enjoyed by these authors who, whereas it’s impossible for us to obtain the execution of our contracts, for their part were able to obtain, by the entirely gracious goodwill of the actors, in 1836, for example, 115 performances, compared to 54 for all the other playwrights combined; and in 1837, over a period of 10 months, 119 compared to 34 for all the others.”

[Hugo’s attorney next attacked, and nimbly exposed the feebleness of, the Comédie-Française’s various other rationales for violating the terms of the contracts it signed with Victor Hugo for the performances of “Marion de Lorme,” “Hernani,” and “Angelo,” as previously detailed in our earlier translation of the first trial, notably that the successive directors who signed the contracts didn’t have the authority to do so, that Hugo failed to double-cast certain of the plays and thus violated stipulations required by the theater’s rules, and that before any reprise “Marion de Lorme” should have been treated like a new play, and as such subjected to a new reading by the theater’s acceptance committee, which never happened. Given that the Commercial Tribunal’s ruling for Hugo in that trial implicitly recognized the speciousness of these defenses, we see no reason to regurgitate here the arguments from Hugo’s lawyer during the appeal adeptly demolishing them. We pick up, then, with his allegations about the numerous subterfuges with which the Comédie-Française itself attempted to sabotage five performances of its own production of “Angelo” in order to mine the run’s success and be able to support its argument that poor box office justified its recusal from the engagement:]

“These five performances were given with the trial in mind, and the theater did everything possible to annul the receipts.

“Do we need to go through the thousand intrigues, the miserable cavils, which Monsieur Hugo had to surmount…?

“Thus, for example, a performance of ‘Angelo’ was announced; on the day in question, [the actress and cast member] Mademoiselle Volnys was suddenly indisposed; the following day she miraculously recovered, just in time to perform, with a lot of vigor and talent, in ‘Camraderie’; the following day, ‘Angelo’ was again scheduled; but, the health of these ladies apparently being such a fragile and capricious thing (laughter in the courtroom), the actress had a second sudden indisposition, which forced the performance to be rescheduled; only to see another sudden recovery the next day, just in time for the audience to applaud her in ‘Don Juan of Austria.’

“I could go on forever in recounting for you what, from the caprices of a star to the maladresses of a prompter, can transpire when it comes to impeding a playwright. There’s a word for this in the argot of the backrooms of the theater, it escapes me at the moment….

“For example, a curtain might go up at 6 p.m. in lieu of 7 p.m., so that, unless they’re fasting, the public risks arriving just in time for the denouement…; the play might be performed, as was the case with ‘Angelo,’ on a day when public celebrations call the entire population of Paris to the public squares; they choose the conditions the most unfavorable in order to be able to avail themselves of the [meager] results later on, during the trial everyone’s waiting for….”

The lawyer, whose brilliant pleading held the judges and the public constantly captivated, next endeavored to justify each of the dispositions taken in the earlier judgment, as pertaining to the damages and interests and the deadlines for performing each of Monsieur Hugo’s three plays….

“Besides the motives for this judgment, which consecrate Monsieur Victor Hugo’s private rights, there are others which formulate a general thesis concerning the rights of literary property, and recall to the Theatre-Française the mission of its institution by protesting against the scandalous monopoly which it exploits. [We ask that you] add to the one and the other of these motivations of the initial judges the authority of your own high sanction; and, in thus giving the Comédie-Française a lesson in good faith, you consecrate, to the profit of dramatic literature, a guiding principle of liberty.”

Maitre Delangre [the Comédie-Française’s attorney], in a brief response, tried to re-assert the numbers for the box-office receipts that he’d provided, prompting lively interventions from Monsieur Victor Hugo and [Comédie-Française] director Védel.

M. Victor Hugo: “I formally contest the figures presented by the lawyer; they are inexact and, as the Comédie is well aware, its director has refused to provide copies of the records.”

M. Védel: “This is true. I felt obligated to do so.”

Monsieur the Presiding Judge, severely: “Why did you refuse to produce your records? You were wrong, Monsieur.”

Monsieur Védel remained silent.

M. Victor Hugo: “I request the court’s permission to make several observations.”

Monsieur the Presiding Judge: “Speak, Monsieur Victor Hugo, speak.”

Victor Hugo: (stirring of the audience) “As I noted before the initial judges, if I take the floor in this affair, it is because of the larger issues at stake.

“This is not just about me, gentleman, but concerns all of literature. This trial will resolve a question that is vital for it.

“It is for this reason that I was forced to launch this process; it is for this reason that I must add my words, devoted to the interests of all, to the eloquent words of my lawyer.

“This obligation, I executed it on a premiere occasion before the Commercial Tribune; I’ve come to execute it a second time before this court.

“And in effect, gentlemen, the dire fact that I’m here to enunciate surges forth from the trial in its entirety. What, therefore, is this trial really about? Let’s examine it more closely.

“In this trial, I have two adversaries: the one public, the other latent, secret, hidden.

“The public adversary isn’t serious, it’s the Theatre-Français; the hidden adversary is the only real one. Who is it? You’ll know this shortly.

“As I said, my public adversary, the Theater, is not a serious adversary.

“And, in effect, what am I to the Theatre-Français? A playwright. And what playwright?

“The question, gentleman, rests entirely there. Monsieurs, for the theaters there are two kinds of playwrights: the playwrights who make them rich and the playwrights who leave them broke. For the theaters, the good plays are the plays which bring in money; the bad plays are those which don’t.

“Without doubt what we have here is a scurrilous fashion to judge literature, and posterity will rank the poets on other criteria.

“But we’re not here to deal with the question of literary value; we’re not posterity, we’re contemporaries.

“And for contemporaries, for the courts in particular, between the critics who affirm that a piece is good and the critics who affirm that a piece is bad, only one thing is certain, only one thing is proven, only one thing is irrecusable: the material fact, the figure, the receipts, the money.

“Contemporary [audiences] are often lamentable judges, this is quite possible. ‘The Misanthrope’ ruined the theater; ‘Tiradate’ made it rich. And voila! By the standards [of contemporary audiences], ‘The Misanthrope’ was wrong and ‘Tiridate’ was right.

“Posterity sometimes overturns the judgments of contemporaries; but, and I repeat this, as far as we living authors are concerned, we’re not [yet before] posterity! Accept therefore as a given, if not in the literary at least in the commercial sense, this fact that, for the theaters, there are but two types of authors: the authors who break their banks and the authors who make them rich.

“And voila! What am I to the Theatre-Français? Am I an author who breaks its bank or an author who makes it rich?

“Voila the first point to which it’s important to have the solution. This solution will then illuminate the entire cause.

“The Theatre-Français has accepted but four of my plays: ‘Marion de Lorme,’ ‘Hernani,’ ‘Le roi s’amuse,’ and ‘Angelo.’ Of these four pieces, two, ‘Marion de Lorme’ and ‘Le roi s’amuse,’ were, in different epochs, halted by the censor; only two, ‘Hernani’ and ‘Angelo,’ were able to be freely performed.

“Now, how many performances did these two pieces have? 91. What was the total box-office produced by these 91 performances?

“Here, gentleman, I have to say, during the first trial, precisely because I was indignant about the maneuvering of the Comédie-Française against the final performances of ‘Angelo,’ I believed it necessary to exempt from the total of my box-office receipts these receipts obviously artificially influenced by the theater for the need of the cause and to help its case, as my attorney excellently demonstrated, and as the Commercial Tribune judged. I believed it necessary, as I was saying, to exempt these receipts, but for what? Why does this matter?

“Is it not victorious, my cause, even in including these receipts? I therefore include them.

“And voila! Gentleman, even in including the desultory box offices for these performances, the result of the intrigues of the theater, the receipts for my 91 performances at the Comédie-Française totaled 259,963 francs and 15 centimes, for an average of 2,856 francs and 67 centimes.

“The theater’s expenses per performance come to 1,470 francs. Figure it out yourselves.

“The average receipts for Mademoiselle Mars, for both the classic and new repertoire, for Mademoiselle Mars, the celebrated actress, who has a 40,000- franc salary in recognition of the enormous revenues she generates, brought in during the most favorable conditions, whereas my plays have always been performed during the summer — the average nightly receipts for Mademoiselle Mars were 2,618 francs and 96 centimes.

“Calculate the difference. In whose favor is it? My favor.

“I can therefore proclaim — and proclaim with pride — which by the way in no manner pre-judges the literary value of my works — that I am for the Comédie-Française among the ranks of the authors who earn it money; this is the irrefutable result of the facts, of the proof, of the figures….”

M. Védel, interrupting: “I have never contested this; Monsieur Victor Hugo does not have any need to insist on this point; Monsieur Victor Hugo is above this discussion.”

M. Victor Hugo: “I believe so, monsieur, I would have well disdained it, this discussion of figures, because the public notoriety alone should suffice as evidence; but your lawyer having advanced his allegations, it was necessary for me to respond with proof.”

Here Monsieur Victor Hugo turned to the court and added:

“And gentleman, this proof might have even been more complete, but this was not just up to me.

“I had wanted, by a detailed summing up of the records of the Comédie-Française, to enable the courts to compare my box-office receipts with those of the privileged playwrights performed the most often at this theater. A vivid light would have splashed forth from this comparison.

“I asked the theater to communicate these records. The theater refused.

“Thus, in this cause, we make our figures public, the theater hides its figures.

“For our part, we place all that is relevant before you; for its part, the theater takes refuge in the obscurity of the shadows.

“We fight with our visage in plain site, the Comédie fights with a mask. Which side is being loyal to the truth?

“They cry out, they disparage, they bandy about various figures in the newspapers.

“What’s to prove that these figures are correct? The only way to verify them is through the records of the theater; the theater refuses to produce these records. It is up to you to judge between our adversaries and us, gentleman.

“To continue:

“Who, therefore, am I for the Theatre-Français? A playwright. What kind of playwright? A playwright who fills seats. Voila the facts.

“In what manner do I present myself in this cause? With plays in one hand and contracts in the other. What kind of plays are these? I’ve just explained. What kind of contracts? I’ll explain.

“Are the plays profitable for the theater? Yes, gentlemen.

“Are the contracts legitimate? Yes as well.

“And gentleman!, these contracts, my lawyer explained them to you and the theater was unable to dispute this: It’s not I who drew them up, it’s the Comédie-Française. It’s not I who requested them; it’s the Comédie-Française. It’s not I who sought out the theater; it’s the theater which sought me out.

“In the name of the theater, Monsieur Taylor came to find me; in the name of the theater, Monsieur Desmousseaux came to find me; in the name of the theater, Monsieur Jouslin de Lasalle came to find me; in the name of the theater, Monsieur Védel came to find me. Why? To offer me the very same contracts that the theater now rejects.

“And I say all this in front of Monsieur Védel, who knows all the facts and does not make any effort to deny them.

“These contracts, successive directors of the theater wrote them entirely in their own hands.

“These contracts, they demanded them of me, they solicited them, they obtained them as a favor, and before long they’ll be asking me for new work.”

M. Védel: “Certainly, and I’ve always requested it.”

M. Victor Hugo: “You hear him now.” (Murmurs in the audience.) “Apparently our contracts are quite valid, and the theater is well aware of this. My plays fill the house, and the theater knows this.

“The theater, as I said at the beginning, is not seriously my adversary. The theater has need of me; and I’m not afraid to say it, it will have need of me again. Before three months are up, you’ll see, if the box-office receipts dip, the director of the Comédie-Française will have no problem finding his way to my house. He’ll find me ready to welcome him.

“He’ll find me ready to welcome him with open arms. Why? Because in this entire affair, and I repeat it, the theater, in truth, is not my real adversary.

“The Comédie has invested a lot of bad faith in this fight, but it is a bad faith which was imposed upon it, I’m well aware; one day it will be embarrassed about this, and I’ve already forgiven it.

“No, it is not in the theater where my real adversaries lurk. Who are they, therefore? I’ll explain.

“Gentlemen, my adversary in this cause, it is not the government, to so claim would be to invest petty chicaneries with too much importance. It is not the ministry; it is not even a minister.

“I’m angry. I would have loved to have had an adversary of scale for this occasion; if for no other reason than my own dignity and ego, I prefer big enemies to petit enemies; but, it must be admitted, my enemies are not big.” (Sensation in the courtroom.)

“My adversary, in this cause, is a petite coterie of slackers in the offices of the interior ministry who, because the funding must pass by the ministry before it gets to the Theatre-Français, has the pretension to rule and govern on its own authority this unhappy theater.

“I proclaim this loudly, gentleman, in order that my words might mount all the way to the minister.

“If this trial is taking place today, it is because this coterie wanted it to; if the Theatre-Français has not lived up to its engagements, it is because this all-powerful coterie desired it so; if, at this juncture, but three our four playwrights are constantly performed at the Theatre-Français to the exclusion of all the others, it is because this coterie wanted it this way. We are talking about a group of influences united, compact, impenetrable, a *comradery*, — I did not invent this word (laughter), but because it’s been invented, I’ll employ it! — a comradery, as I was saying, which blocks and obstructs the future of the theater.

“An entire branch of theater is sidelined by it. It is to just about all of literature that this coterie has attempted to close the doors of the theater. These doors, gentleman, your decision will re-open them.

“I say this because it is a fact, but it is a mighty abnormal fact, that this coterie already has the right to political censorship, it also wants that of literary censorship.

“What do you think of this pretension, gentlemen?”

“It is thus a duty that I execute now. In 1832, I condemned political censorship; in 1837, I unmask literary censorship. Literary censorship! Do you understand, gentleman, all that is odious and ridiculous in this term?

“The fantasy of a bureaucrat, the good taste of a bureaucrat, the poetics of a bureaucrat, the good or bad digestion of a bureaucrat, voila the supreme law which is to rule the theater from now on!”

“The uncontrolled and unappealable opinion of a censor whose command of the French language is not even a given, voila the sovereign rule which will open up and will close from now on to the poets the theater of Corneille and Moliere! The literary censor! On top of the political censor!

“Two censors, good God! Isn’t there already one too many?” (Lively reaction.)

“And in conclusion, gentlemen, allow me an observation. When it comes to attacking all manner of censorship, my position is simple and clear. At a time when unbridled license has invaded the theater, I, partisan of the liberty of theaters, am not reticent to censor myself.

“My lawyer and the lawyer for the Comédie-Française have recounted for you, in concert, and I would simply like to recall here a fact known to all.

“In August 1830, I refused to authorize the Theatre-Français to perform ‘Marion de Lorme’; I did so because I did not want the fourth act of ‘Marion de Lorme’ to become an occasion to insult and outrage the fallen king.

“As the theater’s lawyer himself told you, I had the opportunity to score an immense success from the political scandal, but I didn’t want it. I declared that it was beneath my dignity to make money — as they say at the Comédie — off the misfortunes of the royal family, and to hawk, right there in the theater in the midst of the hateful passions of a revolution, the flowered coat of the fallen king. I declared, in my own terms, as regarded my own play, that I much preferred its literary failure to its political success; and, a year later, in recounting these facts for the preface to ‘Marion de Lorme,’ I reproduced these words, which will always be, in similar circumstances, my rule in life: ‘It is when there is no more censorship that writers must censor themselves, honestly, conscientiously, severely. When one has complete liberty, it is essential to preserve all measure.'” (Movement of approbation.)

“The Commercial Tribune appreciated these facts, gentlemen. It listened to the public debate of the pleadings, it examined the most minute details during its deliberations. It was able to see that at the heart of the resistance of the Theatre-Français in this business lurked an intrigue fatal for literature. It sensed that it was unjust that this theater, the sole national theater, the sole State-funded theater, the sole literary theater was open for a few writers and closed to all the rest.

“The consular court, in its loyal equity, came to the rescue of the world of letters. It rendered a memorable decision that you will consecrate, I have no doubt, with a memorable confirmation. It threw open to everyone the doors of the Theatre-Français: it is not you, gentleman, who will close them again.

“You also, gentlemen, you are the living conscience of the nation. You also will come to the rescue of a dramatic literature persecuted in so many shameless ways, you will make everyone see — us and our adversaries, the literature whose liberties and interests I defend here, this crowd that is listening to us and that surrounds my cause with such a profound adherence, you will make them see, I say, that above the petit caverns of the police there are the courts, that above political intrigues there is justice, that above the bureaucrats there is the law.” (Profound and prolonged applause.)

Presiding judge: “The court is adjourned for eight days, at which time it will hear the pleading of the attorney general.”

Except for recommending that the damages and interests awarded to Victor Hugo for the Comédie-Française’s failure to perform “Marion de Lorme,” “Hernani,” and “Angelo” as agreed to in the contracts it signed be halved from 6,000 to 3,000 francs, arguing before the Royal Court on December 12, 1837, the attorney general sided with Victor Hugo and the first court’s ruling ordering the Comédie-Française’s director to have the three plays performed by specified deadlines or face a 150 franc per day fines. In the same session and after deliberating for 20 minutes, the appeals court upheld the Commercial Tribune’s ruling in full.

Victor Hugo versus the Comédie-Française: When the greatest writer of the 19th-century had to take the renowned theater to court to get it to honor its contract to perform his plays

hugo hernani artcurial

Victor Hugo (1802-1885), Manuscript of “Hernani” delivered to the censors, 1829. 115 pages in one volume in-folio (35.3 x 22.8 cm). Includes seven requests for correction of the censor. Pre-sale estimate: 2,000 – 3,000 Euros. Image copyright and courtesy Artcurial.

Introduction by Victor Hugo
Translation and preface by Paul Ben-Itzak

If you think all you can glean from a sale of musty old books and manuscripts is a whooping cough, think again. What arises most remarkably from today’s sale of 19th and 20th-century literature belonging to the Collections Aristophil organized by Artcurial, Aguttes, Drouot Estimations and Ader-Nordmann in the Drouot-Richelieu auction facilities in Paris is not dust but history, and not just literary histories but histories of humanity. Among the more than 100 lots comprised of manuscripts, original editions, photographs, and art by or associated with Victor Hugo which constitute the heart of the auction is a 115-page manuscript for “Hernani,” considered by many to be the first salvo launched by the Romantics of whom Hugo was the general on the citadel of the Classicists. If this manuscript — estimated pre-sale by the auctioneers at 2,000 – 3,000 Euros — is the example the author submitted to the censors in 1829, contrary to what one might assume, the impediments to getting Hugo’s plays produced didn’t fall with censorship in the Revolution that followed the next year. They only increased. Herewith our translation of the proceedings of the legal process the author was forced to launch against the august Comédie-Français in 1837 after seven years of trying in vain to get the theater created by Moliere to honor its contracts to perform “Hernani,” “Marian de Lorme,” and “Angelo,” as reported by French legal journals and as included and introduced by Hugo himself in “Victor Hugo – Theatre Complete,” in the edition published by J. Hetzel, Bookseller – Publisher, Paris, 1872 . (A copy of which we picked up not an auction but a ‘vide-grenier’ — like a neighborhood-wide garage sale, meaning literally ’empty the attic’ — above the park Monceau earlier this year … for one Euro.) As you’ll discover, because the plaintiff was Victor Hugo and because the defendant was the Comédie-Française, in other words the guardian of the temple, far from representing just one author’s efforts to get his client to honor its contracts, the affair was a sort of outing of the literary battle of two schools, of the past and the future, previously largely hidden or confined to the corridors of power and the backrooms of the theater. With his later lambasting — in the appeal process — of the ‘coteries’ which controlled what the public gets to see, the proceedings also can’t help but resonate with anyone who observes the programming at the establishment theaters of today, whether in Paris or New York. (In this observer’s view.)

Because Eugene Delacroix was to art what Hugo was to theater — ushering in the  Romantic movement in that world, and even designing costumes for Hugo’s first play — we’ve included below a drawing by the former also on sale in today’s auction. There’s also one from Hugo himself.

Our translation is dedicated to Lewis Campbell, for introducing us and so many others to the humanistic power and historical resonance of the theater. To read our translation of George Sand reviewing Victor Hugo for Victor Hugo, click here. And of Hugo appealing for clemency for John Brown, click hereTo support our work via PayPal, just designate your donation to paulbenitzak@gmail.com  , or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check, or to hire Paul for your translation needs.

Introduction by Victor Hugo

As with “Le roi s’amuse,” “Hernani,” “Marion de Lorme,” and “Angelo” had their trials. At heart, it always comes down to the same thing: Against “Le roi s’amuse,” it was a matter of a literary persecution hidden under a political fracas; against “Hernani,” “Marion de Lorme,” and “Angelo,” of a literary persecution hidden behind the chicaneries of the corridors of power. We’re forced to admit: We’re somewhat hesitant and not a little embarrassed to pronounce this ridiculous term: “literary persecution,” because it’s strange that in the moment in which we’re living, literary prejudgments, literary animosities, and literary intrigues are consistent and solid enough that one can, in piling them up, erect a barricade in front of the door of a theater.

The author was forced to crash through this barricade. Literary censorship, political interdiction, preventions devised in the backrooms of power, he had to solemnly seek justice against secret motives as well as public pretexts. He had to bring to light both petty cabals and ardent enmities. The triple wall of coteries, built up for so long in the shadows, he had to open in this wall a breach wide enough for everybody to pass through it.

As little a thing as it was, this mission was bestowed upon him by the circumstances; he accepted it. He is but — and he is aware of this — a simple and obscure soldier of thought; but the soldier like the captain has his function. The soldier fights, the captain triumphs.

For the 15 years that he’s been at the heart of the imbroglio, in this great battle that the ideas which characterize the century wage so proudly against the ideas of other times, the author has no other pretension than that of having fought the good fight.

When the vanqueurs are tallied, he might be numbered among the dead. No matter! One can die and still be the vanqueur.

One should not therefore be surprised if, in the middle of the trial, he suddenly stood up and spoke. If he did so it was because he sadly sensed the need to do so; because he’d suddenly perceived, at a turning point in his adversaries’ pleading, the larger interests at stake for public morals and literary liberty which solicited him to raise his voice. Because he’d come to see the global question erupt in the middle of the private question. And in such circumstances he has no choice but to act thusly.

In whatever situation in life in which obligation unexpectedly seizes him, he adheres to this obligation.

This trial will one day be part of literary history; not, certainly, because of the three nondiscriminate plays which occasioned it, but because of the trial itself, because of the strange revelations which sprung from it, because of the light it cast in certain caverns, because of the theaters in which it disclosed the wounds, because of the literature to which it consecrated the rights, because of the public in which it so profoundly awoke the attention and stirred up sympathy…. [Whence the reason, Hugo goes on to explain, for the trial record’s inclusion in this compilation of his theatrical oeuvres.]

We reproduce here the four sessions in the two trials [as covered by] the Gazette des Tribunaux, which accurately reported them…. This record will always furnish, we believe, more than one type of instruction and respond to more than one type of interest. It is fitting that the public which comes after us can one day know, if by accident the pages that we inscribe survive until then, to what adventures tragedies were exposed in the 19th century.

And now that the author has explained the full extent of his thinking, permit him to thank here, not in his name but in the name of the literary world, the judges in whom the admirable good sense understood so well that in a minor question lurked a larger question, and that the interests of the poet contained the interests of all.

Permit him also to thank the sovereign court, whose austere equity so completely confirmed the intelligent probity of the initial judges.

Permit him also to thank, finally, the young and admirable lawyer for whom this cause was a continual triumph, M. Paillard de Villeneuve, an incisive mind and noble heart, a precious talent in which all the ingenious and fine qualities are allayed with and completed by all the refined and generous qualities.

Victor Hugo
December 20, 1837

HUGO artcurial houseFrom today’s Paris sale of 19th and 20th century French literature from the Aristophil Collection, co-organized by Artcurial: Victor Hugo (1802-1885), original drawing, signed, with the legend “Maisons a mi-cote.” Pen and brown ink, brown lavis, 23 x 25.5 cm. From the ancient collection of Paul Meurice, to whom Hugo turned over his newspaper “L’evenement” when he took exile in the British iles. Pre-sale estimate: 15,000 – 20,000 Euros. Image copyright and courtesy Artcurial.

Tribunal de Commerce de la Seine
(Presidence de Monsieur Pierrugues)

Monsieur Victor Hugo versus the Comédie-Française

[Contemporary summations by the translator of certain sections will be separated into brackets like these.]

Session of November 6

A large audience, composed for the most part of men of letters and actors, assembled in the chamber of the Tribunal of Commerce. Monsieur Victor Hugo was seated at the Bar.

Maitre Paillard de Villeneuve, Monsieur Victor Hugo’s lawyer, explained as follows the claimant’s case:

“Monsieur Victor Hugo requests that the Comédie-Française be condemned vis-a-vis him to pay damages and interests for having not presented the plays of which he is the author; he demands, in addition, that going forward you order the theater, under threat of penal sanction, to present these works.

“For its part, the Comédie-Française appears to oppose the execution of obligations to which on three different occasions it consented, and which for five years it has persisted in refusing to recognize. Is this stance to be interpreted as signifying that Monsieur Victor Hugo is one of these men who, to impose himself on the [will] of a theater, needs to place himself under the protection of a legal mandate? Does this signify that the Comédie-Française, in this fight that it is waging against its own engagements, can excuse itself by the sacrifices that these engagements impose on it and hand off in a certain manner to the public itself the solidarity of a resistance and of an abandonment in which it is complicit? No, such is not, for the one or the other question, the position of the two sides….

“Monsieur Victor Hugo is among those to whom the Comédie-Française owes its most brilliant and most profitable successes, one of those to whom, in its moments of distress, it turns to pray to think of it, and around whom the crowd still presses with an avid enthusiasm.

“These engagements, against which the theater will plead today, it is the theater itself which solicited them. It knows, it still knows, that for it there’s no peril if it submits; and that this is not one of the least oddities of this cause, that shoulder to shoulder with the private interests of Monsieur Hugo one finds also the interests of the Comédie-Française.

“What is therefore the key to this trial? What circumstances have put both of us in this unusual position?

“It is here, gentlemen, that the cause takes on a character of general interest which raises it above the interests of a private squabble and powerfully recommends it to your meditation.

“At the heart of all this lies, in effect, a question of literary liberty, a question of theatrical monopoly. It has to do with knowing if a theater funded by the State, which operates on the expenses of a budget, must be open to everyone, or if it is no more than the exclusive monopoly of a chosen few; if it is awarded to one dramatic system more than another, and if engagements cease being sacred because they might offend what is sometimes referred to as literary scruples. Bizarre position, that, which seems to send us back to the times when legal decrees leant their strong arms to the lessons of Aristotle: but this position, it is not we who came up with it, and you will see it developed with each of the facts of this trial.

“In the epoch in which Monsieur Victor Hugo wrote ‘Marion de Lorme’ and ‘Hernani,’ two literary systems were in place:

“The ones, admiring only the past, did not imagine that the human spirit could go beyond or follow another road; in their powerlessness to produce new matter, they devoted themselves to being no more than inept imitators, and were condemned to perpetually idle in the presence of a great century of which they’d made themselves the pale satellites.

“The others, young, ardent, conscientious, with at their head Monsieur Victor Hugo, believed, au contraire, that, while continuing to admire the chefs-d’oeuvre of the past, there might be a new quarry to forge; they told themselves that, in the arts as in politics, in morals as in sciences, each epoch must have a mission of its own; that for new mores, for new needs, there must be new forms, new nourishment; lastly, they believed that our century is not so bereft that it must be condemned to be but an echo of the past and that it cannot have, it also, its own original cachet, its own horizons of glory and immortality.

“Who was right and who was wrong? This is not important.

“For all the quarry was opened up; public opinion was there to see and judge on its own.

“You must recall these struggles so animated, so furious, which exploded at the time. One awaited with impatience for the French stage to finally be opened up to what was called the new school.

“But this test must have, or so at least it appears, frightened those who up until then had been the exclusive proprietors of this stage, which they regarded as their own feudal kingdom, and which must be closed at all costs to these hardy innovators, the only theater in which they could encounter their adversaries.

“Thus it was that began to manifest themselves against Monsieur Victor Hugo, and against what was called his school, this series of intrigues which have since never ceased to envelope him, which for seven long years have pursued and harassed him, and which finally, his patience extenuated, prompts him to today demand from you reparation.

artcurial delacroix 236From today’s Paris sale of 19th and 20th century French literature from the Aristophil Collection, co-organized by Artcurial: Eugene Delacroix, “Study for Moulay Abd-er-Rahman, Sultan of Morocco,” probably 1832. Much as Delacroix sometimes unfairly gets the rap for ushering in the dubious artistic movement of Orientalism, this drawing is no imagined fancy. The artist met the sultan in 1832, when he accompanied French ambassador Charles de Mornay, charged by the government of Louis-Philippe with opening up relations with Morocco, on his North African voyage. If the painting for which the drawing is a study was made in 1845 for that year’s Salon, the study likely dates from this trip. On the 10-day odyssey which took the party to their meeting with the Sultan, passing besides overflowing rivers and over rough terrain, the painter could often be seen pausing on his saddle, in the shadow of a fig tree, or while walking  hastily scribbling an artistic record of the marvels passing before his eyes. (Source: “Delacroix,” Hachette, 1963.) Black crayon, 17 x 22.7 cm. Lot also includes Jules Labbite’s 1845 edition of “Le Salon de 1845” by Charles Baudelaire and an autographed letter from Baudelaire to Champfleury, an early literary champion of the Realist painter Gustave Courbet. Pre-sale estimate: 12,000 – 15,000 Euros. Image copyright and courtesy Artcurial.

“It was in the month of March 1829: A petition was addressed to the King, it was signed by seven members of the Academie Française, habitual furnishers of material to the Theatre-Français, ancient debris of this imperial literature which vaunts itself as having been the parterre of kings, and which, in its proud naiveté, figures that its genius alone accounts for the ephemeral spotlight that its coronated public had cast upon it.

“This petition requested that the Theatre-Français be closed to productions of the new school; and that, notably, the performances of ‘Hernani’ be banned. You know, gentlemen, how King Charles X responded to these singular petitioners.

“‘As far as literature goes,’ he told them, ‘I have but, like each of you, gentleman, my place in the orchestra pit.’

“And ‘Hernani’ obtained 50 consecutive performances.

“For the theater, this meant the most brilliant box office receipts.

“When the Revolution of July [1830] followed, and with it the abolition of censorship, the Theatre-Français wanted to reprise ‘Marion de Lorme.’ Monsieur Victor Hugo opposed this.

“He who will shortly be portrayed before you as an insatiable author did not want to consent to the performances that were being solicited from him. ‘Marion de Lorme’ had been banned by the censor as being potentially prejudicial by allusion to his royal majesty; there was, yet, at the time [that followed the abolition of censorship] a reaction favorable to success, to enthusiasm….

“But Monsieur Victor Hugo is not one of those who thinks that scandal is a good thing when it can result in applause and in [increased revenue for authors]. He reminded himself that a fallen dynasty had the right to this respectful compassion that every man of heart owed to the banished, and that it didn’t seem right to him to bank a success on the effervescence of those then piling up on Charles X, and on allusions which he’d never contemplated. He thus limited himself to requesting from the Comédie-Française the reprise of ‘Hernani.’ [It’s worth noting here that Hugo had been raised as a Royalist.]

“But the intrigues of which you’d seen the germination in the petition of 1829 were resurrected, and it was impossible to obtain this reprise.”

Here the lawyer reviewed for the tribunal the various contracts that had been signed by Victor Hugo and the Comédie-Française.

The first, that of August 12, 1932, relative to the celebrated drama titled “Le roi s’amuse,” stipulated that “Hernani” would be reprised in January 1833. This first contract was violated.

A second intervened April 10, 1835, on the occasion of “Angelo,” and stipulated that “Hernani” and “Marion de Lorme” would be reprised over the course of the year. This double clause was also violated, [Hugo’s attorney contended], despite two ardent reclamations from Monsieur Hugo.

Lastly, a third engagement from Monsieur Védel [director of the Comédie Française], remained unexecuted. The lawyer, recalling the various censorship decrees implemented against “Le roi s’amuse” and “Antony,” linked the motives of these decrees to the petition of 1829 and the literary discussions which arose each year in the legislative chambers when it came to the budget of the Theatre-Français and the threat issued, on many occasions, to cancel the funding of a Theatre-Français sullied by its contact with the literary innovators, and attempted to demonstrate that all these acts were linked to a general system of monopoly and of exclusion of a literary doctrine which offended certain repugnancies and bore umbrage to certain celebrities.

“What would be, in effect,” continued the lawyer, “the motive of this perpetual violation of contracts? A pecuniary interest, a question of box office receipts. To this we respond, figures in hand, that Monsieur Hugo’s box office receipts are equal, superior to those that the theater considers as its most fructeuse, those [brought in by performances] of [Comédie Française star] Mademoiselle Mars. Thus the average intake over 85 performances of Monsieur Hugo was 2,914 francs and 25 centimes. Mademoiselle Mars’s average in the winter of 1835 was 2,618 francs. [Anne-Boutet Mars, 1779 – 1847, created the lead role of Dona Sol in “Hernani,” considered by many to be the play that set off the war between the Classicists and the Romantics, in 1830, when she was 51 years old. In his own notes on the initial performances of “Hernani” and “Angelo,” Hugo is effusive in his eloges to Mademoiselle Mars.]

“Do we need more proof of the system to which I’m referring? Why not give you more?: Because here, Monsieur Hugo is not speaking only in the name of his private interests, he’s speaking in the name of all those who toil with him in the same quarry, in the name of a question of art and of theatrical liberty; and you need to know to just what lengths the abuse against which we’re here to protest today can go.

“Among the men whom public favor accompanies with its esteem and its applause, but who don’t tread the same literary road as Monsieur Victor Hugo, and who unlike him are not under the censorial embargo, there are above all two individuals, to whose talent and competence we more than anyone rend homage, and whose success has been and still is great. Certainly, it is not they who have put us in this position.

“The exclusion which weighs on certain authors, which pushes them away despite sacred engagements, is the farthest thing from their thoughts; and if a monopoly results from this, they undergo it more than fabricate it.

“I’m even convinced that the two people of whom I’m speaking are not even vaguely aware of all this. I would simply like to demonstrate that the Comédie-Française is intent on nothing less than disinheriting from its advertising all those whose doctrines aren’t in line with the officially sanctioned literature imposed upon it.”

The lawyer then placed before the tribunal a sheet with a statistical breakdown of the diverse performances of the Theatre-Française, examining the relative positions of the 40 to 50 authors whose works belong to the repertoire.

What follows is an excerpt from this curious document as presented by the attorney, which provoked several manifestations of surprise in the audience.

“In 1834, out of 362 performances, and after subtracting the performances of the old standards [i.e. by dead authors], the two authors in question accounted for 180; for all the other authors combined there remained but 45 days.

“In 1835 and 1836, these two authors had 113 and 115 days, all the others [combined] but 50 and 54 days.

“Finally, from the first of January, 1837, up until this moment, these two authors have obtained 112 representations; only 54 have been accorded to the others.”

After signaling all that is alarming in such an abuse, on the part of a theater whose very institution must be open to all work, to all successes, and after allowing that nothing is more legitimate than frequently paying authors who regularly succeed, on the sole condition of not excluding other authors who succeed no less, Monsieur Paillard de Villeneuve moved on to the examination of the contracts [between Monsieur Hugo and the Comédie-Française] themselves, and attempted to justify, in a luminous discussion, the conclusions reached in the name of Monsieur Victor Hugo.

“This cause,” he pronounced in terminating, “does it not offer you a strange spectacle? For eight years, despite numerous and explosive successes, despite the good faith owed to sacred engagements, Monsieur Hugo has not been able to open the doors of this theater, on which nevertheless he has cast more than a little glory; and, while the Comédie-Française thus fights to condemn him to silence and oblivion, Monsieur Victor Hugo is able to see his works translated in every language; and to learn that on diverse stages in Europe, in London, in Vienna, in Madrid, in Moscow, his works have been gloriously performed and coronated with applause…. It is only in France, in his own country, that he has been unable to hear this echo.”

Mr. Delangle, lawyer for the Comédie-Française, takes the stage.

“Gentleman,” he begins, “I did not expect to see the question placed on the terrain that my adversary has chosen. I see in this affair nothing but a simple question of private interests, nothing but an appreciation of acts, and not a question of art, of literary monopoly.”

“Don’t expect therefore of me that I follow Monsieur Hugo’s lawyer in the discussion that he’s come to breach. It’s sufficient for me to tell you that our adversary is significantly unfounded in his complaints and recriminations; because, of five plays of which the illustrated poet is the author, four have been received by the administration of the rue Richelieu [where the Comédie-Française was and still is based]; three, ‘Hernani,’ ‘Le roi s’amuse,’ and ‘Angelo,’ have been performed by the [actors of the] Comédie-Française.

“If ‘Marion de Lorme’ is not among them,’ the fault can only be attributed to the censor’s [initial] veto.

[Here the Comédie-Française’s attorney launches into a lengthy discourse in which he argues that as the theater is in his view still governed by an imperial decree from Moscow as well as a royal decree from 1816, the two Comédie-Française directors who signed the contracts with Hugo did not have the authority to do so without these bodies’ approvals, and that Hugo did not perform due diligence in inquiring as to whether these parties agreed with the contracts, going on to
say this is like signing a contract with a minor without the permission of his parents. To this he adds the rather specious argument that because Hugo himself did not assure that the roles in ‘Hernani’ were double-cast, as, he claims, the decrees governing the organization dictate, the contract promising future performances of that piece is null and void.]

“An initial casting was done in 1829; but Michelot, who played the role of Charles V, pulled out; Mademoiselle Mars renounced the role of Dona Sol. Since then, Monsieur Hugo has done no new casting.”

[At this point Victor Hugo himself rises.]

“You are mistaken. The casting was done in 1834. It’s all written down in the records of the theater, in the very hand of [director] Monsieur Jouslin de Lassalle. The role of Charles V was given to Monsieur Ligier, who’d actively campaigned for it with me.”

[After stating that he was not aware of this, Delangle goes on to insist that even if it’s true, this in itself does not meet what he claims is the requirement that the author is responsible for double-casting all roles. Next he contends that as pertains to “Angelo,” the company fulfilled its contract obligations with ten performances and only interrupted the run when audiences diminished to the point where it was making less than the 1,500 francs per performance necessary to break even. As concerns “Marion de Lorme,” he cites Hugo’s own decision to withdraw the drama from the repertory following the 1830 revolution for the reasons described above by the author, and his subsequently giving it to the Theatre Porte Saint-Martin, and then goes on to claim that the play had mitigated success anyway, at which point Hugo again interrupts:]

“It had 68 performances,” causing stirring amongst the audience.

[The Comédie’s lawyer then argues that a reprise would have been conditioned on a re-reading by the organization’s reading committee, as is required for all new plays because “it was in a certain manner a new piece,” and which reading never happened, thus excusing the organization from its obligations to reprise the play, concluding:]

“Thus, I have demonstrated that as regards ‘Marion de Lorme,’ the Comédie-Française was under no obligation to fulfill [the contract] as long as Monsieur Hugo had not held up his end.

“For ‘Angelo,’ we are in the terms of equity before the law, which cannot force us to fulfill a [financially] prejudicial engagement.”

“Finally, as for ‘Hernani,’ if the tribunal believes that the contract is valid and that it’s appropriate to order [a reprise of] its performance[s], we request a delay sufficient for effectuating the reprise.

“In any case, no damages or interests should be accorded,” because “on the one part,” [there has been no failure by the Comédie to live up to its agreements, and on the other] “Monsieur Hugo has fulfilled none of the obligations that for his part he should have executed.”

[Rising to respond to the Comédie’s various grounds for dismissing Hugo’s claims, Monsieur Paillard de Villeneuve points out the theater’s apparent double-standard thus revealed:]

“Three contracts were signed by diverse directors: when it comes to Mr. Hugo’s obligations, these directors are quite capable of acting; their supposed incapacity is only invoked when it comes to meeting their own obligations…”

[Monsieur Paillard de Villeneuve goes on to argue that the supposed regulations imposed by the other institutions mandated to control the Comédie — the Moscow and Royal decrees adduced by his adversary — whether those affecting the directors’ power to enter into contracts without their assent or the obligation of its authors to double-cast, have never been executed in any other cases. That as regards “Hernani” the author did everything in his power to execute the contract in good faith; and that as pertains to “Marion de Lorme” the 1835 contract contained no obligation for a second reading of plays which had already been performed at the Comédie. Turning to “Angelo,” he contests the organization’s method for calculating box office receipts and produces an alternative document in which they’re larger than his adversary has implied, averaging 2,300 francs per performance or 800 more than the required break-even level cited by the Comédie’s lawyer. Here we pick up the newspaper’s contemporary account:]

The lawyer terminates in requesting a judgment which will at the same time serve as a reparation for Monsieur Hugo and a punishment for Comédie Française for its bad-faith efforts to honor the contracts for the three plays.

Monsieur Hugo rises. (Excited movement of curiosity amongst the audience.)

“Gentlemen, I did not expect to speak during this affair. My lawyer has completely dynamited, in his argumentation, at once eloquent and precise, the strange system adopted by the lawyer for the Theatre-Française, and if it were just a matter of me in this trial, I would not take the floor; but it’s not just a matter of me: It’s literature itself whose cause in this moment is interchangeable with my own. I must therefore speak up. To speak up for one’s private interests is a right; I would have easily renounced a right. To speak up for the interests of all is an obligation, and I never retreat before an obligation.

“And, in effect, gentlemen, the attitude that the Theatre-Francaise has taken in this affair is a grave warning for dramatic literature in its entirety. There is a system here which needs to be called out, a lesson in which all authors must claim their part. The loyalty of the Comédie-Française deserves to be called out. Let’s bring it to the grand light of day.

“From the singular defense to which the Theatre-Française has had recourse, there result two things:

‘The first is this: The director of the Theatre-Française is a double-man.

“The director of the Theatre-Français has two visages, one for us, authors, and the other for you, the tribunal.

“The director of the Theatre-Français (Here Monsieur Hugo turns towards the bar and states: “And I regret to not find him here before me at the bar to confirm my words.” Then he continues:) “The director of the Theatre-Français has need of me; he comes to find me. His box-office receipts are falling, he tells me; he counts on me to rescue his theater; he asks me for a play. He offers me all the conditions I might desire; he proposes a contract; he has the full power to do so; he’s the director of the Theatre-Français. I consent. I consent to give him the play that he’s requested.

“The director writes out the entire contract in his own hand; I sign it, then he signs it also. Voila an engagement that is formal, complete, sacred you say. No, gentleman, it’s a fraud.

“You heard it yourself, I’m not making anything up, it’s the lawyer of the theater who told you so himself, the director, whether his name is Védel or Jouslin de Lasalle, it’s not important, the director is not qualified to enter into contracts; the director has come to my house knowing this; and why has he come to my house? To make a contract with me.

“I acted in good faith, me, the author; the director lied and fooled me. Behind him was a decree from Moscow, a regulation of consuls, an ordinance from 1816 — what do I know! I ignore completely this decree, this regulation, this ordinance.

“The director was fully aware that I ignore it, he took advantage of my ignorance.

“Grace of my ignorance, he obtains from me plays for which other theaters make sincere offers to me. Although having no power to make a contract, he makes a contract with me, he fools me, I say, and, you’ve just heard it, it’s this act that the Comédie-Française is now vaunting.

“What happened? Me, the author, I religiously executed the terms of the agreement: I turned in at the deadlines agreed the promised plays. The theater, for its part, was only loyal to violating its engagements; it violated them three times consecutively.

“For all my claims — I don’t know if this is what they mean by mettre à demeurer — for all my claims, the theater gave only evasive responses, the theater eluded, the theater promised, the theater fooled me and put me off from year to year by commencements of execution. To sum it up, the theater did not execute.

“And yet, I must declare, no director has never dared let me catch even the shadow of a glimpse of this system that the theater’s advocate has just exposed — and ‘exposed’ is the operative word, gentlemen — to the face of justice.

“After seven years of waiting, of good faith procedures, of patience, of silence, of serious damage to my work and to my interests, I decided to appeal to the tribunals; I had recourse to the protection of the law, which should not cover literary property any less than other property. I call to your bar who? The director of the Theatre-Français. And the director of the Theatre-Français evaporates.

“The man who I saw, the man who wrote to me, the man who spoke to me, the man who came to my house, the man who had all the power, the man who made the contract with me and who signed it, this very man is no more than a shadow. He’s an invalid being; he’s an individual without any qualifications; he’s a minor.

“He did draw up a contract, this is true, but he didn’t have the right to draw up a contract; there’s that decree of Moscow. He signed it, this is true; but he shouldn’t have signed it: there’s that regulation of consuls. He gave his word, this is true. But how could I possibly have believed his word? It’s his own lawyer who says this. Voila the defense of the Theatre-Français.

“Was I not right to tell you in beginning, gentlemen, that the director of the Theatre-Français has two visages?

“These two visages are two masks: With one he fools the authors, with the others he fools justice.

“Once again, gentlemen, when I say the director of the Theatre-Français, I’m not trying to designate any one person, no more Monsieur so-and-so than Monsieur tickety-tack. It’s not the man who occupied, who occupies, or who will occupy the position of director who I accuse; it’s the position itself. It’s this ambiguous and unqualifiable situation that I signal to you. Besides, as you can see yourselves, the director of the Theatre-Français is a shadow who escapes authors on one part, and justice on the other.

“What also results from the pleading of the theater is this: If you are an author, if you’ve produced at the Comédie-Francaise 85 reciepts [i.e. the box-office receipts for 85 performances]; if, including the costs to the theater, which are 1,500 francs per day, these receipts have yielded 2,914 francs, that is to say 85 times 1,414 francs in profits for the theater, this means nothing, absolutely nothing. Among your 85 reciepts there are receipts which surpass 3,000, 4,000, 5,000 francs; who cares?! if among those 85 there are one or two below 1,500 francs, voila those that the theater declares, voila those that it denounces before the court, and it heaves out on its losses great moanings! In truth, does this not provoke pity?

“I won’t say anything further about these numbers, about these chicaneries, about these miseries. I don’t follow the theater’s lawyer in the inextricable labyrinthe of subtleties in which he attempts to lock away my rights. I disdain, gentleman, all this discussion which is completely unexpected to me, I declare so, and which Monsieur Védel would be the first to disavow, I hope for him, if he were present at this trial.”

Monsieur Delangre: “I’m simply pleading as my client has instructed me.”

Monsieur Victor Hugo: “I believe it, but this surprises me, because I know the loyalty of Monsieur Védel, it’s painful for me to think that he could have possibly consented to invoking against me at this trial arguments from which he seemed so removed in our personal conversations.

“There’s another point, gentleman, I say this in passing, to which I’m surprised that the lawyer for the Comédie-Française has not himself called your attention. The average nightly receipts for “Hernani” were 3,312 francs.”

Monsieur Delangre: “I don’t have this figure.”

Monsieur Victor Hugo: “3,312, the number is exact… and 12 centimes if you want to be absolutely exact.” (Smiles among the audience.)

Monsieur Victor Hugo, continuing: “I don’t have anything to add, gentlemen; I have acted in good faith in this affair, the Comédie in bad faith. Rare thing: It’s the Comédie itself which declares this, and which makes of its bad faith its defense system. I signed contracts which I took seriously and which I executed; the successive directors of the theater signed contracts which for them were derisory and which they have violated.

“This theater has often had need of me; it came to find me: I’m citing here just the facts, facts which nobody can ignore. I rendered it services which it does not deny; it responds with deceptions that it also does not deny.

“You are fair judges; you appreciate this manner of acting and this manner of defending oneself.

“You will teach this theater that it’s immoral to make contracts and to purposely make them in an invalid fashion so that afterwards they can violate them.

“You will break the monopoly which this theater has confiscated to the detriment of all literature, for which two Theatre Françaises would hardly suffice.

“You will not recognize the system of the Comédie-Française in the name of decency to itself; you will teach it, because it has need that the justice system teach it, that the signature of its directors is a valid signature, that the word of its directors is a word that should be taken seriously.

“You will not insult these directors in siding with them and thus declaring their signature null and their word a lie.

“And me, gentlemen, I will be able to felicitate myself for having given you a new occasion to show that your judgments are the exact echo of your consciences and the echo of that of the public conscience.”

After this brilliant improvisation, which was followed by a general murmur of approbation, Monsieur le president announced that the case would be deliberated with a judgment pronounced within 15 days.

 

[15 days later, on November 20, 1837, the tribunal, siding with Hugo and declaring that the Comédie had done him wrong, condemned its director Védel to pay Hugo 6,000 francs in damages and interest and gave Védel, in his capacity as director of the Comedie-Francaise; two months to reprise “Hernani”; three to reprise “Marion de Lorme”; and five to complete the 15 performances of “Angelo” or face fines of 150 francs per day for each day past that deadline. He also ordered him to pay Victor Hugo’s trial expenses.]

Next: The Appeal.

Lutèce Diary, 39: August 31, 1944 –Critique of the New Press / Critique de la nouvelle presse (French original follows English translation)

by Albert Camus
Translated by Paul Ben-Itzak

First published in the August 31, 1944 edition of Combat, the heretofore underground newspaper edited by Albert Camus. To read our translation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s report on the Liberation of Paris from the same issue, click here. To read our review with extracts of the recently published correspondence of Albert Camus’s correspondence with Maria Casarès, click here. After returning to Paris with false identity papers furnished by the Resistance, Albert Camus was the underground newspaper Combat’s final editor under the Occupation, on one occasion (as documented by Olivier Todd in his 1996 biography for Gallimard) being saved from being busted with proofs of the newspaper in his pocket at a Gestapo checkpoint when he was able to deftly pass the proofs to Casarès, correctly guessing that she would not be searched.

PARIS — Because between the insurrection and the war, a respite has today been granted us, I’d like to talk about a subject that I know well and which is dear to my heart: the Press. And because it’s a question of this new Press which has emerged from the battle of Paris, I’d like to speak with, at the same time, the fraternity and the clairvoyance one owes to comrades in combat.

When we were producing our newspapers in clandestinity, it was naturally without a lot of to-do or grandiloquent declarations of principles. But I know that for all our comrades at all our newspapers, it was also with a great secret hope: The hope that these men, who risked their lives in the name of a set of ideals which were sacred to them, would be able to give their country the Press that it deserved but no longer had. We know from experience that the pre-war Press had lost its morals and its principles. An avariciousness for money and an indifference to the big picture had combined to give France a Press which, with rare exceptions, had no mission beyond promoting the power of a select few and no effects beyond devouring the morality of the whole. It was therefore not difficult for this Press to become the Press it became between 1940 and 1944, that is to say the shame of the nation.

Our wish, all the more profound from remaining largely unspoken, was to free newspapers from pecuniary concerns and endow them with a tone and a truth which would elevate the public to the highest form of its higher self. We believed that a country is only as good as its Press. And if it’s true that newspapers are the voice of a nation, we were decided, for our part and as our humble contribution, to elevate this country by elevating its language. Wrongly or rightly, it was for this reason that many among us died in inconceivable conditions and that others suffered the isolation and the threats of prison.

In fact, we merely occupied offices, where we fabricated newspapers that we put out in the heat of the battle. It’s a great victory and, from this point of view, the journalists of the Resistance displayed a courage and a will that merits the respect of all. However — and forgive me for bringing this up in the midst of the reigning enthusiasm — this is very little considering all that remains to be done. We’ve conquered the means for conducting this profound revolution that we desire. But we still need to really carry it out. To put it bluntly: The Free Press, at least as far as one can judge after 10 days of putting out issues, leaves a lot to be desired.

What I propose to say in this article and in the following piece, I don’t want it to be misconstrued. I speak in the general name of fraternity forged in combat and am not targeting anyone in particular. The criticisms that it’s possible to make are addressed to the entire Press without any exceptions, and we understand each other. Are they premature? Should we allow our newspapers time to organize themselves before undertaking this examination of conscience? The reply is NO.

We’re well-situated to be able to appreciate the extenuating circumstances under which our newspapers have been produced. But this isn’t the question. The question is over a certain tone that might have been adopted from the get-go and that was not. On the contrary, it is precisely at the moment in which this Press is in the process of being created, of defining itself, that it is imperative that it examine itself. Only by doing so will it know what it wants to be and be able to become this.

What do we want? A Press clear and virile, a respectable language. For men who, for years, have written their articles in full awareness that they might have to pay for these articles in prison or death, it’s clear that words have their value and that they must be weighed. It is this responsibility of the journalist to the public which they want to restore.

Sins of laziness

And yet, in the rush, the anger, and the frenzy of our offensive, our newspapers have sinned by laziness. In these times the body has been working so hard that the brain has lost its vigilance. Here I’ll say in general what I propose to explain in detail later: Many of our newspapers have fallen back into the same tired formulas that we believed outmoded, with no fear of the rhetorical excesses or the pandering to the lowest common denominator in which the majority of our newspapers indulged before the war.

In the first case, we need to get it into our heads that we’re only marching in the same tracks, in a kind of reverse symmetry, of the Collaborationist presse. In the second case, we’re simply resuming, because it’s the easy thing to do, formulas and ideas which endanger the very morality of the Press and the country. If we really think that either of these is an option, we might as well quit now and resign ourselves to giving up on what we really have to do.

Because the means for expressing ourselves are now conquered, our responsibility vis-a-vis ourselves and the country is total. What’s essential — and it’s the goal of this article — is that we’re averted. The task of each of us is to really reflect upon what he wants to say, to shape step by step the spirit of his newspaper, to pay attention to what he writes and to never lose sight of this immense necessity we have to restore to a country its most profound voice. If we ensure that this voice remains that of energy rather than that of hate, that of objective pride rather than that of hollow rhetoric, that of humanity rather than that of mediocrity, then a lot will have been saved and we won’t have failed.

— Albert Camus

Version originale

PARIS — Puisque entre l’insurrection et la guerre, une pause nous est aujourd’hui donnée, je voudrais parler d’une chose que je connais bien et qui me tient à cœur, je veux dire la presse. Et puisqu’il s’agit de cette presse qui est sortie de la bataille de Paris, je voudrais en parler avec, en même temps, la fraternité et la clairvoyance que l’on doit à des camarades de combat.

Lorsque nous rédigions nos journaux dans la clandestinité, c’était naturellement sans histoires et sans déclarations de principe. Mais je sais que pour tous nos camarades de tous nos journaux, c’était avec un grand espoir secret. Nous avions l’espérance que ces hommes, qui avaient couru des dangers mortels au nom de quelques idées qui leur étaient chères, sauraient donner a leur pays la presse qu’il méritait et qu’il n’avait plus. Nous savions par l’expérience que la presse d’avant-guerre était perdue dans son principe et dans sa morale. L’appétit de l’argent et l’indifférence aux choses de la grandeur avaient opéré en même temps pour donner à la France une presse qui, à de rares exceptions près, n’avait d’autre but que de grandir la puissance de quelques-uns et d’autre effet que d’avaler la moralité de tous. Il n’a donc pas été difficile à cette presse de devenir ce qu’elle a été de 1940 à 1944, c’est-à-dire la honte de ce pays.

Notre désir, d’autant plus profond qu’il était souvent muet, était de libérer les journaux de l’argent et de leur donner un ton et une vérité qui mettent le public à la hauteur de ce qu’il y a de meilleur en lui. Nous pensions alors qu’un pays vaut souvent ce que vaut sa presse. Et s’il est vrai que les journaux sont la voix d’une nation, nous étions décidés, à notre place et pour notre faible part, à élever ce pays en élevant son langage. A tort ou à raison, c’ést pour cela que beaucoup d’entre nous sont morts dans d’inimaginables conditions et que d’autres souffrent la solitude et les menaces de la prison.

En fait, nous avons seulement occupé des locaux, où nous avons confectionné des journaux que nous avons sortis en pleine bataille. C’est une grande victoire et, de ce point de vue, les journalistes de la Résistance ont montré un courage et une volonté qui méritent le respect de tous. Mais, et je m’excuse de le dire au milieu de l’enthusiasme générale, cela est peu de chose puisque tout reste à faire. Nous avons conquis les moyens de faire cette révolution profonde que nous désirions. Encore faut-il que nous la fassions vraiment. Et pour tout dire d’un mot, la presse libérée, telle qu’elle se présente à Paris après une dizaine de numeros, n’est pas satisfaisante.

Ce que je me propose de dire dans cet article et dans ceux qui suivront, je voudrais qu’on le prenne bien. Je parle au nom d’une fraternité de combat et personne n’est ici visé en particulier. Les critiques qu’il est possible de faire s’adressent à toute la presse sans exception, et nous nous y comprenons. Dira-t-on que cela est prémature, qu’il faut laisser à nos journaux le temps de s’organiser avant de faire cet examen de conscience ? La réponse est « non » .

Nous sommes bien placés pour savoir dans quelles incroyables conditions nos journaux ont été fabriqués. Mais la question n’est pas là. Elle est dans un certain ton qu’il était possible d’adopter dés le début et qui ne l’a pas été. C’est au contraire au moment où cette presse est en train de se faire, où elle va prendre son visage définitif qu’il importe qu’elle s’examine. Elle saura mieux ce qu’elle veut être et elle le deviendra.

Que voulions-nous ? Une presse claire et virile, au langage respectable. Pour des hommes qui, pendant des années, écrivant un article, savaient que cet article pouvait se payer de la prison ou de la mort, il était évident que les mots avaient leur valeur et qu’ils devaient être réfléchis. C’est cette responsabilité du journaliste devant le public qu’ils voulaient restaurer.

Péché de paresse

Or, dans la hâte, la colère ou le délire de notre offensive, nos journaux ont péché par paresse. Le corps, dans ces journées, a tant travaillé que l’esprit a perdu de sa vigilance. Je dirai ici en général ce que je me propose ensuite de détailler : beaucoup de nos journaux ont repris des formules qu’on croyait périmées et n’ont pas craint les excès de la rhétorique ou les appels à cette sensibilité de midinette qui faisaient, avant la guerre ou après, le plus clair de nos journaux.

Dans le premier cas, il faut que nous nous persuadions bien que nous réalisons seulement le décalque, avec une symétrie inverse, de la presse d’occupation. Dans le deuxième cas, nous reprenons, par esprit de facilité, des formules et des idées qui menacent la moralité même de la presse et du pays. Rien de tout cela n’est possible, ou alors il faut démissionner et désespérer de ce que nous avons à faire.

Puisque les moyens de nous exprimer sont dés maintenant conquis, notre responsabilité vis-à-vis de nous-mêmes et du pays est entière. L’essentiel, et c’est l’objet de cet article, est que nous en soyons bien avertis. La tâche de chacun de nous est de bien penser ce qu’il se propose de dire, de modeler peu à peu l’esprit du journal qui est le sien, d’écrire attentivement et de ne jamais perdre de vue cette immense nécessité où nous sommes de redonner à un pays sa voix profonde. Si nous faisons que cette voix demeure celle de l’énergie plutôt que de la haine, de la fière objectivité et non de la rhétorique, de l’humanité plutôt que de la médiocrité, alors beaucoup de choses seront sauvées et nous n’aurons pas démérité.

— Albert Camus

Lola Lafon’s “Mercy, Mary, Patty” (Revised and Expanded Translation)

lafon small

Photo of Lola Lafon by and copyright Lynne S.K.. Courtesy Actes Sud.

by Lola Lafon
Translation by and copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak
Original text copyright 2017 Actes Sud

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“In this world where everything is rigged, where the only thing that is not divided is money and where the only thing that is spread around is the heart, it’s impossible to rest on the sidelines.”

— Paul Nizan, “The Conspiracy” (1928), cited on the frontispiece of “Mercy, Mary, Patty”

Extract, pages 7 – 19:

You write the vanishing teenaged girls. You write these missing persons who cut the umbilical cord to seek out new horizons and embrace them without being able to tell the problematic from the promising, elusive, their minds shutting out adults. You interrogate our brutal desire to “just talk some sense into them.” You write the rage of these young women who, at night, in the childhood bedrooms where they’re still surrounded by their stuffed bears and giraffes, dream of victorious escapes, then climb aboard ramshackle buses, trains, and strangers’ cars, fleeing the neatly-paved road for the rubble.

“Mercy, Mary, Patty,” your book published in 1977 in the U.S., is dedicated to them and has just been re-issued, augmented with a preface by you and a brief publisher’s note. It’s not yet been translated in France. It concludes with acknowledgments as well as your biography, from your degrees in American Literature, History, and Sociology through the teaching positions you’ve held: the University of Chicago in 1973, the College of the Dunes, France, in 1974-75, assistant professor at the University of Bologna in 1982 and, finally, professor at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. Articles appearing in the academic journals over the past few months tout the importance of your work, magazines question what they dub your ‘rehabilitation.’ The New Yorker consacrates two columns to you: “A controversial theory: Neveva Gene and the capsized teenage girls, from Mercy Short in 1690 to Patricia Hearst in 1974.”

The Northampton bookstore clerk slips your book into a paper bag, he seems curious about my choice, the Hearst saga’s old history, you’re European, aren’t you? You seem to have your own share of toxic teenagers at the moment, those girls swearing allegiance to a god like one gets stuck on a movie star, Marx, God, different eras, different tastes…. I’m guessing you’re a student at Smith, he goes on, if you’re looking to meet the author, she’s listed in the faculty directory.

But I’m not looking for you. Your office is on the second floor of the building I walk by every morning but it doesn’t matter because I’m not looking for you, I’m supposing you. I explain my reason for being here to the bookstore clerk, I pronounce your name, I recount, I say “Madame Neveva” as if you were standing there right next to us and insist upon it, I say “Neveva” the same way as your students in France who venerated you and who I was not one of, Neveva Gene who debarked in a little village in Southwest France in the month of January 1974, a young teacher who in the autumn of 1975 hastily tacked up notices in the village’s two bakeries, Wanted female student with high level of spoken and written English, full-time job for 15 days. Adults need not apply. URGENT.

(New chapter)

October 1975

The three girls who have replied to your ad sit across from you in your cramped office, you offer them a bag of peanuts and cashews, your knees bump up against the desk, your light blue Shetland sweater is patched at the elbows, your hitched-up Levis reveal the malleoluses of your ankles. You say Bonjour, I’m Neveva Gene, pronounced ‘Gene’ as in Gene Kelly or Gene Tierney, no nick-names please, no ‘Gena,’ no ‘Jenny.’

Squeezed into a bordeaux window nook, one by one the candidates detail their trajectories in an effort to win you over, this one is studying English Literature at the university, the next has already been to the U.S. twice, speaking English fluently is important if you’re going to go into business. When it’s the third girl’s turn, she invokes a sabbatical year since graduating from high school in June and the need to make a little money. As they already know, you’re a guest professor. You studied in Massachusetts at Smith College, a university founded in 1875 and reserved for girls barred at the time from higher education. Sylvia Plath was a student. Sylvia Plath, the name doesn’t mean anything to them? You mark an incredulous pause in the face of the embarrassment of the candidates. Margaret Mitchell? The author of “Gone with the Wind”? The young women acquiesce to that one with an enthusiasm which tempers you, it’s a novel that’s more than a little dubious, above all Smith had the honor of admitting the first African-American woman to graduate from college, in 1900: Otelia Cromwell.

“American Lifestyle and Culture,” the course you’re offering at the College of the Dunes, is protean; you speed through what you’d anticipated teaching before you actually got here, the particular architecture of Massachusetts houses, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letters to his daughter Scottie, the history of the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco, a study of the success of the film “The Planet of the Apes,” a deciphering of the urban legend of the phantom hitch-hiker, the adventure of Apollo 16 and, finally, the invention of the Arpanet and its consequences for communication. Formidable program. The fact is that you nurtured high hopes for this college. They should see the welcoming brochure, three pages on pedagogic innovation, but the reality is something else, this institution is merely the umpteenth private school for girls without any particular qualities who drift about aimlessly after high school, a factory for future homemakers more hippy than their mothers, cute little domestic animals brought up to be consumed before their expiration dates. And who understand nothing in the articles you pass out. The young postulants keep quiet and wait politely to find out what this has to do with them, perhaps they didn’t get the sexual connotation of “brought up to be consumed.” Or maybe they’re just petrified now at the thought of having to submit themselves to your judgment for this work about which you still haven’t said a word. One by one, they recite an article from the New York Times out loud, then translate the essentials, you ask them about the books they read, their musical tastes, pretend not to understand if they answer in French, Sorry?

But where did you learn to speak English like that, you ask the third candidate who immediately blushes, she refers to American songs whose lyrics she likes to copy, they’re actually British you point out, amused, when she recites the words from the Rolling Stones’s “Time Waits for No One” and David Bowie’s “Young Americans.” She rattles off her favorite movies, every week the public t.v. channel shows a film with sub-titles, the ciné-club, she never misses it even if it’s on late, 11 o’clock, you call her an Americanophile, she stammers, not sure if this is good or bad. All three listen to you, dumbfounded, as you imitate the annual speech of the director to parents in an exageratedly nasal and mincing voice, “Oh nooo, it has nothing at all to do with excluding boys from my establishment and everything to do with offering girls special attention! To free them from their own fears!” You want to know what they think: Would they like to study there, with access to so many courses, Introduction to Psychoanalysis, Cinema History, Introduction to Baroque Singing, Judo, and Modern Dance? The third girl’s answer — the tuition is too high — you greet with exaltation, as if it were a scientific breakthrough: Eggs-act-ly! Yes! The very principal of this establishment is a contradiction: Emancipate only those who can afford to be emancipated. At the end of the day, it’s just a bunch of bullshit.

Suddenly you leap up on the transparent Plexiglas chair. You grab a box from the top shelf and place it on the desk. Voila, you declare in designating the package of American origin, as indicated by an impressive quantity of identical green stamps plastered across the top. The job of whoever you decide to hire is entirely contained within, you show them the folders overflowing with press clips, half open a plastic bag filled with cassette tapes resembling those teenagers use to record their favorite songs off the radio. You’ll have to write a report, and you won’t have time to read all this. You must be capable of synthesizing these tons of articles, you point your finger at the box. You insist on an availability that will be indispensable but of a limited duration, 15 days maximum.

“In fact, do you know who Patricia Hearst is?” They’re already on the porch when you pose the question, as if it’s an after-thought, one of the candidates blurts out: During her vacation in the U.S., she saw her on t.v., Patricia is very rich she was kidnapped and…. She’s cut off by her competition, Yes they talked about her in France, there was a fusillade, a fire, and she’s dead. No, you correct her, she’s not dead, the police caught her. It’s her kidnappers who are dead. And they’ve hired you to evaluate the mental state of Patricia Hearst after all these tribulations. A respectful silence follows. None of the three ask who exactly this mysterious “they” is who’s hired you, nor why “they” chose you, you whose specialties are history and literature. You’re the adult, the teacher, and also the exotic foreigner inviting them into a world of adventure, kidnapping, heiresses, happy endings. That alone is enough. The young woman whose English level you praised hasn’t uttered a word, distraught, perhaps, to have lost out in the final leg of the race; she’s never heard of Patricia Hearst. That very evening her mother nudges her bedroom door open, her hand resting on the phone: It’s for you, a funny accent, surely the American professor.

“Is it frowned on here to go to teachers’ homes?,” you ask the young woman you’ve anointed as your assistant. “Because in my office we’d be too scrunched up, we’ll be a lot more comfortable in my home. We’ll talk salary tomorrow, I’m counting on you to not let me rip you off. By the way, are you really 18? I’d put you more at 15.” And it doesn’t matter that she’s never heard of Patricia Hearst, you add before hanging up.

(New chapter)

During the ramshackle hiring interview — a real show — you conveniently leave out a major chunk of the Hearst saga. Are you afraid of scaring off these three demeure French girls by telling them any more, do they seem too young to you, are you worried that their parents will be freaked out to see them working on such a subject, you’ve been living in this village of less than 5,000 inhabitants for a year and a half and have already tested its limits, here everyone knows everything about everyone, talks to everyone about everyone, judges everyone. It takes time to explain the complexities and nuances of the drama to your interlocutors and time is the one thing you don’t have a whole lot of. What angle will you use to trace the journey of this young American, which episode will you start with?

That of the kidnapping of Patricia on February 4, 1974 by an obscure pseudo-revolutionary cell, the Symbionese Liberation Army? That of the initial message from the heiress of February 12, a tape recording dropped off by her abductors on the doorstep of a radical radio station which set off a riot in the entire country, her small voice murmuring “Mom, Dad, I’m okay”? How to explain to these French women who just need a job that for the FBI, the victim morphed into a perpetrator in less than two months, converted to the Marxist cause of her captors she was even identified at their sides April 15 on the video-surveillance images from a San Francisco bank, packing an M16. It’s understandable that you’re prudent about what the candidates know and don’t say anything about the metamorphosis of Patricia Hearst.

As for your task, this “psychological” evaluation, you don’t exactly lie but here as well you take shortcuts and leave Patricia’s lawyer, your silent partner, in the shadows. You have 15 days to discover something in the cardboard box overflowing with photocopies that will enable you to write an expert’s report exonerating this child over whom the American media is whipping up a frenzy as her trial approaches. 15 days to decide, who is the real Patricia, a Communist terrorist, a lost college student, a genuine revolutionary, a poor little rich girl, an heiress on the lam, an empty-headed and banal personality who embraced a cause at random, a manipulated zombie, an angry young woman with America in her sights.

(New chapter)

A large beige dog with chestnut spots greets your new assistant on the doorstep with outsized enthusiasm, you lunge forward to hold him back — blech!, he’s just planted a big wet kiss on me — a wink, Meet Lenny, you throw a sock at the dog so he’ll skedaddle.

You put out a plate of frosted cookies, offer a cup of tea, jasmine, mint, Russian flavor, whatever she wants, you point to 10 scattered, slightly rusty tin boxes on the kitchen counter. She picks one at random, doesn’t dare tell you that in her family, whether it’s black tea or herbal tea you only drink it when you’re ill. She listens to you standing up, cup in hand, you haven’t invited her to sit down and the only chair in the room is covered with sweaters, an amorphous pile.

“Summarizing the articles will be tedious, we need to stay focused on the details,” you caress the frayed edges of the cardboard box on the dining-room table with a finger. The young French woman nods, looking for clues, are you married, you’re not wearing any perfume, your face is a make-up free zone as the reddened nostrils confirm, your hair is gathered up into a haphazard pony-tail, your nails clipped like a boy’s are stained yellow with tobacco, you laugh your mouth full of chewed-up cookies without excusing yourself, the beads of tangled-up necklaces peek out from a half-open drawer, you tack 33 record covers on the wall, a Nina Simone and a Patti Smith, two times you evoke your “best friend” who lives in San Francisco, the phrase suggests an overly prolonged adolescence, how old are you? The dog follows you everywhere, into the kitchen, the bathroom, when you go to the toilet you go right on talking to your assistant, shouting for her to answer the phone. Mlle Gene Neveva is not available, the flabbergasted girl improvises.

She’s never met an American before you. Speaking this language that she associates with novels and actors, hearing her own voice become foreign turns your first day together into an intoxicating game of role-playing. Everything is part of the scenery, a stop-over in an exotic wonderland, the peanut butter you spread on the crackers whose pale crumbs are strewn all over the rug, your bedroom with the storm-windows shuttered in the daytime, the books piled up at the foot of your bed and the stacks of dailies and weeklies that you ask her to sort by title: Time, Newsweek, the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle. You toss around the words casually, kidnapping, FBI, abductors, when night falls you rub your eyes like a sleep-deprived child and twist around and contort your chest with the eyes half-closed, inhaling slowly, sitting Indian-style on the floor. Re-invigorated, you’re impressed at the manila folders that the girl has prepared and the neat rectangular white labels with sky-blue borders that she pulls out of her pencil case.

“I just love how serious you are, Violette. That name doesn’t really fit you though, ‘Violette,’ it makes you sound like a delicate little flower….”

My middle name is Violaine, the teenager improvises. You stretch your legs out under the table, your mouth forms a careful O, the smoke rings dissipating by the time they hit the ceiling.

“It’s important, a first name, it’s a birth. Violaine. Not easy to pronounce for an American but o-kay. You know, Vi-o-lai-nuh, what will remain unforgettable for me when I go back to the United States?”

The thunder-storms. The mountains. On the beach, on certain days, one can make them out carved into the fog, when they lock themselves around the ocean like an open hand it’s a sign that it will be sunny the next day, your assistant is amused to hear you recite with such conviction the sayings of the old-timers.

The tidal equinoxes, also. Last week the ocean seeped up to the edge of the dunes! The paths along the moors. They all look the same, there are no landmarks, a pine tree is a pine tree is a pine tree is a fern is sand. The sand, you sigh…. That, mixed with the soil in the forest, which turns into mud the instant it rains, the silky beige sand that finds its way into your purse, your notebook spirals, the bottom of your bed, stuck to the soleus muscles of your calves, your socks.

Mlle Neveva won’t forget the sand, she who’s just baptized herself Violaine writes in her diary with the detachment of a documentarian, omitting the fleeting moment when she thinks she hears you describe her as unforgettable even though she barely knows you.

The sand, you repeat practically every day like a mantra, exasperated, taking off your sneakers and shaking them out onto the ground.
Extract, pages 92 – 99

(New chapter)

Day 13

When, on the morning of the 13th day, you announce that you’ve read something which has opened your eyes, no doubt your report will be finished tomorrow afternoon, Violaine is more relieved than you can imagine. This is all she wants, to return to the equilibrium of those first days, to just be your little helper who cuts, translates, and pastes. Instead of being the person who slows you down and irritates you and doesn’t hear the same things you hear in Patty’s recorded messages. You suggest going to the village bar and smoke-shop, a change of scenery will help.

It’s noon, church is letting out, the church plaza is packed, Lenny goes wild every time a hand is stretched out to him, exuberant and shy at the same time, a little kid who never lets you out of his sight, you whistle and put an end to all the social whirl. You deride the devout out loud in English, tell Violaine to observe their holier-than-thou airs, wearing their religion on their sleeves, they’re so relieved to be in good standing with God. There’s no such thing as lost souls, just passive bodies, our own.

When you make your entrance into the café, the men lined up along the counter pivot to stare at you, Violaine follows in your wake, embarrassed to be embarrassed by you who are not at all embarrassed, your jeans just a tad too wide reveal the hemline of your panties, your sea-blue pull-over emphasizes that you’re not wearing a bra.

This providential book, you read it all in one night, the Stanislavsky Method of the Actor’s Studio is the bible of all the great American actors, Robert De Niro used it in playing Travis in “Taxi Driver” (Violaine hasn’t seen it, the film is banned for those under 21). It offers an abundance of exercises to help with building a character. And indisputably, Patricia has become a character. And voila your idea, to envisage the entire saga like a story, a film! You’ll be Patricia and Violaine can play, let’s see, Emily Harris, of the SLA. Your assistant’s aghast refusal amuses you, at the end of the day, Marxism isn’t contagious.

“First exercise: Two words that define your character.”

“Alone,” Violaine suggests.

“Protected from everything. Oops, I used one word too many.”

“Very mature for her age.”

“Too many words, Violaine…! Susceptible and superficial?”

“Secretive.”

“Typical teenager,” you fire back at Violaine, sticking your tongue out at her.

“A symbolic example.”

A symbolic example? Of what? Your assistant sputters, she has no idea of what, she’s just repeating what the heiress says on the second tape. You admit that you’re perplexed, without doubt Patricia must have said “This is a symbolic example,” and Violaine must have understood “I am a symbolic example.” You’ll have to listen to it again later. Second exercise, write a letter to your character. How would a letter addressed to Patricia Hearst, the college sophomore of before the kidnapping, be different from one addressed to Patricia Hearst, prisoner? One doesn’t change in a few weeks, Violaine protests, all the same distressed to be disagreeing with you once again. You maintain that we’re not entities with immutable identities, circumstances change us, is Violaine the same with her parents as here, certainly not, but Violaine sticks to her guns, Patricia doesn’t really change over the course of her messages, she’d write her the same letter.

The waiter buzzes about you, when he serves the glass of Armagnac the owner insists on offering — the American lady from the Dunes is spending the afternoon in his bar! — his wrist brushes against your hair, Violaine whispers to you, “Il tient une couche celui-là” (He’s one sick puppy, that one), you don’t know the expression but it enchants you, you repeat it to the waiter, who slinks away, the bar is packed to the rafters, the regulars coming from the rugby game, teenagers putting off going home for the traditional Sunday lunch, you can’t hear anyone, you go to the counter to order a beer, you drink to the death of that bastard, Franco finally croaked the day before yesterday, you proclaim rather than simply state, “Those who are against fascism without being against capitalism, those who wail about barbary and who come from barbary, are like those who eat their share of veal but who are against killing calves. They want to eat the veal but don’t want to see the blood.”

A young blonde man applauds you, Bravo, say that again but louder, so that everyone can benefit, a couple approaches you and introduces themselves respectfully, their daughter is in your class, they’ve heard so much about you, you interrupt them, she needs to read Brecht, their daughter, voilà!, the glasses are refilled and clinked, fascistes de merde, then, in the exhilaration of this frenzy, Violaine rises to her tippy-toes and whispers to you these words that she knows by heart, the phrase with which the SLA signs all its communiqués, “Death to the fascist parasite who feeds on the life of the people.” You stare at her, startled, she thinks you’re going to make fun of her and apologizes, she’s read the words so many times in the past few days that they’ve become embedded in her brain, but you grab her hand and kiss it with ceremonious exaggeration, everyone whistles in approval, you bow as if for a curtain call.

You insist on walking Violaine home despite her protests: It’s not like she’s going to get lost over 500 meters. Weaving along the path, slightly buzzed, you burst out laughing recalling the shocked air of a group of your students, seeing you drinking with the farmers seemed to scandalize them, you regale Violaine with your impressions of them, the way you can never separate those two in class, the sadistic books that one devours, stories of girls on drugs, prostituted, beaten, locked in closets, raped, the passion of this other one for Arthur Rimbaud, she keeps a picture of him in her wallet and sobs inconsolably over his death, but she’s incapable of citing a single one of his poems. Arriving at the gate, you can’t seem to decide to leave, you ask about the purpose of the high thickets which surround Violaine’s parents’ property. It’s a question of tranquility, Violaine answers without reflecting. You repeat the syllables, “tran-quil-i-ty.” Your assistant’s parents are therefore insulated from all the racket which rages around here — you indicate with a sweeping gesture the forest and the few scattered other houses. You crack yourself up with your own jokes, do Violaine’s parents have a special thermostat in their living-room for perfect tran-quil-i-ty, with different gradations: “bored like a dead man,” “death-like silence….” Violaine, her keys in hand, doesn’t dare tell you that she’s freezing, that the French phrase is “bored like a dead rat” and that her parents are waiting, the living-room lights are on, if they come outside and find you both on the stoop, they’ll invite you in, and Violaine can’t think of anything worse than you meeting her parents, why do you have to endlessly analyze everything, you tilt your head and hoot at the sky, waiting for the theoretical reply of an owl which never comes. As if it weren’t already night and the sand humid under your naked feet – you grip your sneakers in your trembling hands — you start in on a recapitulation of the afternoon, it was groovy. You’ll return to the bar next Sunday as promised with a Nina Simone 33 because you couldn’t find any of her songs in the jukebox. A propos, did Violaine notice the reaction in the bar when you told about how Nina Simone’s parents, during a concert by their daughter, had to surrender their seats of honor to Whites and Nina refused to continue singing? Nothing. No reaction. Not a shadow of indignation.

The bar had never been so silent. Violaine should remember it, this silence, it has an acrid taste, it’s the silence of that which remains unsaid, those who didn’t flinch at the idea of concert seats being off-limits to Blacks thought they were abstaining from commenting but their silence said it all. In this café, everyone had chosen his camp. There’s no such thing as neutrality.

(New chapter)

Day 14 (Excerpt)

Your faith in Method Acting doesn’t last long, the next morning you don’t talk about it anymore. You complain that you have at most two more days before you have to mail the report and you’ve only just started writing it, this report that Violaine assumed you were on the verge of finishing. You hole up in your room for most of the day, from the living-room Violaine can hear the tape player starting up, No one’s forcing me to make this tape, Patricia insists. A brief click, the lisping of a tape being rewound, “You need to understand that I am a, uh, symbolic example and a symbolic warning not only for you but for all the others.” When you find yourself with Violaine in the kitchen, you sip your tea without a word, no mea culpa and Violaine doesn’t dare bring up again Patricia’s expression that she therefore in fact completely understood, nor ask you who these others are, all the others, does she mean “warning” in the sense of an alarm or of a threat, of what exactly is she the example, Patricia…?

You’re expected in San Francisco December 15. There, like the other expert witnesses, you’ll be briefed in depth on the potential attacks from the judge and the prosecutor on your credibility and your past. We’ll turn your revolutionary experience into an asset, the lawyer promises. Who could be in a better position than you to know that, in these groups, you don’t find many 19-year-old heiresses who’ve never participated in a demonstration? That a lawyer whose universe is limited to Harvard and the circle of influential Republicans would harbor this type of certitude is hardly surprising. That you’ve shown yourself so sure to be able to prove him right is more problematic.

But now this skinny French teenager comes along. Why listen to Patricia at all if you’re not willing to hear her?, she innocently asks you over and over. Her question, you can’t permit yourself to hear it either, you whose job it is to show that Patricia doesn’t know what she’s saying. You were right the day you hired her, Violaine understands perfectly well what you’ve given her to read, just not in the way you need her to….

Extract, pages 108 – 112

(New chapter)

Day 15

Are you tired of an experiment which isn’t working out like you wanted it to, these debates in which Violaine continues to whittle away at your attempts to prove that Patricia Hearst was brainwashed. Are you exhausted, between teaching every other day and writing the report, are you pre-occupied with the prison sentence waiting for Patricia if the Defense shows itself incapable of proving her innocence, or worried about seeing your reputation tarnished, you who up until now have led a charmed life, the trial promises to be highly newsworthy, your defeat will be public, Neveva Gene was incapable of coming up with three measly lines to save Hearst. On this particular morning you usher Violaine in and swing the door open to your bedroom in designating, carefully spread out across the carpet, a mosaic of Patricias. Ten tableaux, the magazine covers from Time and Newsweek. Ten attempts to forge a coherent portrait. One
rough draft after another, each superseding its predecessor.

The cover from February 6, 1974, “SHATTERED INNOCENCE,” a Patricia grinning widely, under the delicate blue of an immobile horizon, her hair tussled by a sea breeze, she’s wearing a boy’s striped Polo shirt. The cover from February 13, “WHEN WILL SHE BE SET FREE?,” a pensive Patricia curled up in a vast olive-green armchair, her father with his back against the bookshelves standing behind her, a hand resting on her shoulder. The cover from March 10, “FIANCÉ TALKS ABOUT PATRICIA.”

Violaine kneels, careful not to move the photos. That’s the most recent one, you point to the Time cover of April 4, 1974. No more blue, no more sky, just fire. The background of the image is red, like the fire of a nightmare which seems to surge from nowhere, red like the SLA flag before which she stands, her legs slightly ajar, Patricia is 20 years and one month old, she wears a beret slanted back over her undulating auburn hair, the leather bandolier of an M16 rifle rumpling the khaki fabric of her blouse. A wide black banner splits the image of the heiress in half: GUILTY.

(New chapter)

You tell a stunned Violaine that what you’re going to listen to now is a bit shocking. The speech but also Patricia’s tone of voice, the way she talks to her parents. You propose listening to it three times, this tape, once with the eyes closed, to take notes and rapidly go through the dailies from April 1974. Only afterwards will you talk about them.

Tape 4, broadcast April 3, 1974

“I’d like to start out by making it clear that what I’m about to say I wrote on my own. This is what I’m feeling. No one’s ever forced me to say anything on these tapes. I haven’t been brainwashed, or drugged, or tortured, or hypnotized. Mom, Dad, I want to start off with your pseudo-efforts to ensure my safety: Your gifts [the SLA’S ransom demands included food giveaways to the poor] were an act. You tried to hoodwink people. You screwed around, played for time, all of which the FBI took advantage of to try to kill me, me and those in the SLA. You claimed you were doing everything in your power to get me freed. Your betrayals taught me a lot and in that sense, I thank you. I’ve changed; I’ve grown up. I’ve become aware of many things and I can never go back to the life I lead before; that sounds hard, but on the contrary, I’ve learned what unconditional love is for those who surround me, the love that comes from the conviction that no one will be free as long as we’re not all free. I’ve learned that the dominant class won’t retreat before anything in its lust for extending its power over others, even if it means sacrificing one of its own. It should be obvious that people who couldn’t care less about their own child don’t care anything about the children of others.

“I’ve been given the choice between: 1) being released in a safe place or 2) joining the SLA and fighting for my own liberty and for the liberty of all the oppressed. I’ve chosen to stay and fight. No one should have to humiliate themselves to stand in line in order to be able to eat, nor live in constant fear for their lives and those of their children. Dad, you say that you’re worried about me and about the lives of the oppressed of this country, but you’re lying and, as a member of the ruling class, I know that your interests and those of Mom have never served the interests of the People. You’ve said that you’ll offer more jobs, but why don’t you warn people about what’s going to happen to them, huh? Soon their jobs will be eliminated. Of course you’ll say that you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’re just a liar, a sell-out. But go ahead, tell them, tell the poor and oppressed of this country what the government is getting ready to do. Tell the Blacks and the vulnerable that they’ll be killed down to the last man, women and children included. If you have so much empathy for the People, tell them what the energy crisis really is, tell them that it’s just a clever strategy to hide the real intentions of industrialists. Tell them that the oil crisis is nothing more than a way to make them accept the construction of nuclear power plants all over the country; tell the People that the government is getting ready to automate all the industries and that soon, oh, in five years at the most, we won’t need anything but push-buttons. Tell them, Dad, that the vulnerable and a big part of the Middle Class, they’ll all be on unemployment in less than three years and that the elimination of the useless has already begun. Tell the People the truth. That the maintaining of law and order is just a pretense for getting rid of the so-called violent elements, me, I prefer being lucid and conscious. I should have known that you, like other businessmen, if you’re perfectly capable of doing this to millions of people to hold on to power, you’d be ready to kill me for the same reason. How long will it take for the Whites of this country to realize that what’s being done to Black children will sooner or later happen to White children?

My name has been changed to Tania, in homage to a comrade of the struggle who fought with Che in Bolivia. I embrace this name with determination, I’ll continue her fight. There’s no such thing as partial victory. I know that Tania dedicated her life to others. To fight, to devote oneself entirely to an intense desire to learn…. It’s in the spirit of Tania that I say, Patria o muerte, venceromos.”

–Tania Hearst

Extract, pages 126-140

Soon after her collaboration with Violaine on the Hearst brief, Neveva returns to the U.S., leaving behind her one lost dog and one “capsized” teenager. Violaine grows up to become the village outcast, adored only by the children who flock to her house after school to eat brown sugar crepes and learn how to question accepted societal norms, much to the consternation of their parents. Her most tenacious pupil is the narrator, in whom Violaine eventually confides the notes she took and the diary she kept while working with Neveva Gene on the Hearst case. (Whence the second-person premise with which the narrator addresses Gene at the beginning of the novel: “I’m supposing you.”) A sort of repository of the influences of Neveva, Violaine, and through her Hearst, the narrator continues to question…. and to search.

***

Did you really get to know her, your assistant, or did you just skim the surface and size her up in the wink of an eye while you were pontificating about the liberty of women? Of course, in 1975 you were the adult, her elder with whom she didn’t share a whole lot. I have the advantage of the notes she entrusted me with and of the distance of time.

I’m five years old and she who let herself be baptized Violaine to please you is this thin young woman approaching 30 who lives alone with her dog in the house she grew up in, on the outskirts of our little village. From her house you can take a short-cut through the forest which leads directly to the beach, a four-kilometer walk between the columns of towering pine trees. Her dog fascinates me, hieratic and klutzy at the same time. Lenny seems immense to me, Violaine whispers mysterious words to him, my parents explain to me that she speaks English with him because he’s American. Children tend to linger at her place, at snack-time she makes us brown sugar crepes, she listens to us, talks to us like adults never talk to us, we can ask her anything we want. What does she do for a living? She thinks for a moment, let’s see, she translates newspaper articles into English, she helps kids with their homework, she dog-sits when families go on vacation, at the antique shop in the neighboring village she sells bathroom shelves and picture-frames that she makes herself, she repairs shoulder-straps on discarded purses. Why do you have to be limited to one way of making a living?

And why doesn’t she have any children? Well, that depends on what you mean by “have,” can one really “have” another person, what do we think, do we belong to our parents? What if all we can actually own are these scraps of time like the time she spends teaching us to swim, to dig, to read?

I’m seven years old and have the right to hold Lenny’s leash on his walks, the job of making sure there’s always water in his bowl. Violaine teaches me a few English commands that I test out, marveling at how the dog “sits,” “gives me his paw,” and “lies down.” While she reads the newspaper, I get to know Lenny, the silkiness of his dewy, practically hairless skin, the interior crease of his front paws, his leathery nose cracked at the edges, I curl up against him without him batting an eyelid, I hold my face up near his mouth, he snoozes, his breath caressing my cheek. I race to Violaine’s after school to see him, he’s ecstatic to see me, I throw rags to him which he methodically tears to shreds, Violaine warns me about his age, not to be fooled by his healthy appearance, Lenny is a vieux monsieur.

I’m eight years old, summer vacation is over, one September morning, in the glare of the Sun, Violaine’s face seems to have suddenly been drained of all its youth. Lenny died yesterday cradled in her arms, he didn’t suffer, he looked her right in the eyes until the end, a serene trusting look, he was over 15 years old, he lived an incredible life, he traversed a whole continent, he was lost and found at the edge of a lake in America and here also, Lenny was loved multiple times, he had two mistresses, I’m inconsolable, Violaine takes me to discover a path which leads to a part of the beach where normally I’m not allowed to venture alone, there’s no lifeguard. You have to make your way slowly, pushing aside the thistles and blackberry branches to avoid getting pricked, can I tell if the cumin smell is coming from those tiny mauve flowers sprouting up out of the dunes? The sun-baked sand is lined with narrow, barely detectable trails, vipers’ paths. We cry without talking facing the sea then laugh at the idea that what’s making us wail is a dog who landed in France one fine day in 1974 and was lost one fine December morning in 1975. In the spot where he loved to spread out under the Sun, behind the house, Violaine suggests that I plant carrots, which he adored, when I get up to look for a sprinkler, she kneels pressing her forehead against the sand, caressing the soil with her palms.

I’m ten years old and I’m not aware of her tenuous status among the village’s adults. Tolerated but not included, Violaine is never invited to dinner, no one asks for her help in getting ready for the village fête in July; when she is asked for anything, it’s reluctantly, someone needs something translated. They’re all polite to her but without any warmth, like they might be with a foreigner who still doesn’t understand the local customs. For us, Violaine is a miracle in equilibrium between our adolescence to come and the morose adult age of our parents, time circled around her and spared her.

One Saturday afternoon, Violaine passes around a plastic bag in which each child is supposed to place a cracker, an apple, a bon-bon, for “the poor.” We obey, a bit skeptical, no one’s in need around here, we’re not in India. The bag is left out in the open on the City Hall plaza, the morning after it’s empty. What then becomes a ritual generates a buzz that lands us in the local daily, which heralds “a laudable initiative by children identifying the growing poverty in the village since the cork factory shut its doors.” A journalist wants to meet Violaine, she demurs, taking the credit doesn’t make any sense, she didn’t invent anything. The following weeks the priest joins our effort, accompanied by his catechism students, we add to the bags poems copied onto loose sheets as well as drawings. Violaine starts a new club, “The atelier-debate,” Wednesday afternoons from three to six. We cram into her living-room. She hands out a Xerox with the rules: No Interrupting and Show Kindness Towards Others. Such formality makes us feel important, elevates us above the aggressive brouhahas of adults that we dread, Sundays we get up from the table as soon as we’re done eating, plug our ears in our beds to block out the bickering of our parents, “You could have…. If you at least had…. You’ll never do it.”

Sitting on Violaine’s carpet, it doesn’t matter if we’ve already eaten, we compete for cookies, shortbread, marble cake, we hold out our hands, we fidget, me me Violaine, our cheeks reddened with impatience, anxious about not being able to remember everything we have to say.

Violaine presses us about our habits, did we see an ad for our backpack in a magazine, is that why we wanted to buy it, does choice even figure into it?

What if we were starving and we heard about a place where we could get free meals, but where we knew the food was stolen, what would we do? Would we not eat? If we were asked to pass this food out to the poor, what would be more important, where the food came from or feeding those who don’t have anything?

The day after the third Wednesday session, my parents, like the others, receive a letter signed “Concerned Parents” accusing Violaine of justifying stealing. And then I hear them talk about you for the first time: For 15 years they’ve made her pay for the episode of the American professor, it’s time they leave her alone, says my mother, exasperated. I’m eleven years old.

I’m 12 years old, when school lets out Saturday afternoons I race over on my bicycle, I have to scale two hills to get to Violaine’s house. I have my own cup for the tea that she’s taught me to love, a Disney plate dating from when I was eight, Violaine regularly makes like she’s going to toss it and is amused by my protests. My rites make her laugh, aren’t I bored yet of trying on her old scarves in front of the mirror?

I walk by her side. We forge through glades invaded by ferns nearly two yards high, picnic in the hollow of the dune, where we can light a fire without being spotted by the gendarmes, we dine on pepper and zucchini shish-kebobs, wade into the Ocean shivering in April, the water is freezing, that was stupid declares Violaine once we’ve enveloped ourselves in blankets on the sand. I’ve just been authorized to enter her office at the end of the hall, the most beautiful room in the house where the window looks out on the round stones of a dry creek bed. The shelves reach almost up to the ceiling, with books of all sizes which I’m permitted to read but not to take home. The air seems to be in repose, a silence of filtered light impregnated with amber and paper, I pray night never comes, that there’s no interruption of this world that I’ve discovered in the pages of Newsweek, Time, Life. They all have holes in them where articles have been cut out.

In 1991, I’m in eighth grade, Sandrine Cornet loans me a CD her father brought back from the United States, on the cover of Nevermind a plump baby swims in indigo water below a dollar bill attached to a fishing hook. Violaine translates the words of “Something in the Way,” we discuss the meaning of the refrain, America and its wars, says Violaine, seem to be painfully lodged in Kurt Cobain’s throat. I make fun of her lightly, one says the United States, not America. And speaking of the United States, which city does she know the best? I’m not surprised by her response but feel awkward about having made her uncomfortable, what does it matter, she’ll travel later, what does she want to see when she finally goes there?

Violaine gets up on a chair and fetches a folder from the highest shelf, she spreads the photos out on the carpet. Among the snapshots of Northampton and its campus is a portrait: You stare straight into the lens with a mocking smile, your white blouse tucked into the bell-bottom jeans, your feet sheathed in light blue Converses. Sitting on one of the three steps of the building, back leaning against the august portal with its gothic wrought-iron interlacing, the gilded lettering proclaiming: “Smith College, 1875.” Patricia Hearst does not come up that day, just you, Mademoiselle Neveva, for whom Violaine “translated articles and filed papers” in the winter of 1975.

I’ve just turned 16, I half-heartedly prepare for finals. Since Easter, at the request of my parents I’m taking English classes with Violaine, she has me read Emily Dickinson’s poems and excerpts from novels, Jack London’s “The Call of the Wild” and James Fenimore Cooper’s “The Last of the Mohicans,” I have trouble translating the articles she gives me, one of which is an analysis of John Ford’s “The Searchers.” It’s signed Gene Neveva.

She starts your story like this, Violaine: How lucky she was to have been your assistant, despite the migraines every afternoon, the anguish every morning, you needed to work fast, understand complex articles in one reading, summarize them without complaining. But what a chance, what an honor to have contributed, with you, to saving an adolescent from life in prison, here, this is her, Violaine points to the framed photo on her desk. I’ve been looking at this photo since I was a kid, I always assumed it was a cousin, one of Violaine’s friends. I’ve now met Patricia Hearst. Violaine captivates me with the ambiguous charm of the story she reveals to me in bits and pieces. A story of solitude, of encounters, of choice. Of being alive and making sure people know it. Sometimes maybe it’s better to remain with the Indians like in the Westerns, she murmurs.
She pretends to be surprised when I show up on my bicycle the following Wednesday, what, I haven’t had my fill of talking about all this, don’t I have friends my own age? But my classmates and their mundane lives, their preoccupations – what will I do after high school – their Friday nights, their whiskey-Cocas and ground-up aspirin, all this pales in comparison to Patricia Hearst. Violaine holds the key to what I want to understand. The odyssey of a young woman barely older than me whose fracas inebriates me. I tirelessly scrutinize her face on the cover of Newsweek from September 1975. Not a very flattering picture, the glaring lighting accentuates the shadows of the rings under her eyes and her pallid skin. Patricia-Tania stares out at anyone who pauses before the image with a defiant air in this photo taken by the LAPD after her arrest. She looks livid and yet the police have just freed her from her kidnappers, I remark to Violaine, perplexed. Years later, after I’ve spent entire days listening to her and reading her notes, Violaine confides in me that this “livid” surprised her, most of those to whom she’s shown this photo have described Hearst’s expression as “flippant, annoyed.” I’m the only one to catch her anger.

My own is invisible. When it’s time to go back to my role of docile daughter, I ride my bicycle on the bumpy path, where the sand forces me to pedal harder until I’m out of breath, the sadly softened quietude of the family foyer with its bright lights making my eyes fill with tears, I listen without saying a word to my parents recount their day over dinner, two subdued adults with tired smiles. The utter forlornness of blood ties appalls me like it’s only just hit me, I detest what they’re in the process of turning me into, right up to the first name I was given, I’ve been brought up to advance lock-step into the future, whatever the cost, an obedient little soldier who sticks to the family narrative without questioning it, content to obtain what she’s never really wanted, a place in society, a job, a happy home. The prudence of my parents’ life makes me want to throw up, the cowardice of it. Their parsimonious kindness when they toss a coin to a homeless person, their bitter resignation disguised as “character” when they vaunt themselves: “Me, I have no illusions.” I will no longer be the person I was. I open up to Violaine, she doesn’t say anything, her eyes shining brilliantly, she just listens to me debate with myself without being able to identify the strings tying me down. I impregnate myself with Patricia Hearst’s words, hoping that they will contaminate me, I see myself ready to sacrifice everything but the words and the causes elude me, they seem either outsized – the Rwandan genocide, the war in Iraq – or too local, the closing of the pine cellulose factory. Tania’s heroism dwarfs me, forces me to confront my own passivity, she knows how to fearlessly target her enemies, I can’t even find them. What needs to be destroyed, what needs to be attacked first, how, with whom, and which side are you on if you’re not on hers? I scoff at the student demonstrations against the CIP (Contract of First Employment, designed to release employers from minimum wage requirements for workers 26 and under), the counter debates where everyone recites his own personal litany of indignations before sagely returning to the daily grind, and which are useless because no victory exists if it’s only partial. I devote myself to building up my body, push-ups, tractions, abs that I perform on my bedroom carpet, Patricia learned to run and high jump, to load a gun in the dark, to be fearless, to attack. My thirst for knowledge is unquenchable, I spend my Wednesdays stretched out on the carpet in Violaine’s office, I start one book that I discard to grab another that I also don’t manage to finish, I want to read them all. I’m too young I can’t wait. For a class presentation in which the theme is “the other side of the décor,” in the presence of a baffled French teacher I talk about the exposure of the cloistered world of the heiress, how Patricia, in going over to the other side, put an end to several tenacious myths. No, parents don’t love their children unconditionally, not if they embrace another identity besides the one they’re pre-programmed for, no, the police aren’t here to protect us, the police who didn’t hesitate to spray the house in which Patricia was supposed to be with machine-gun fire. I read extracts of her messages to my peers, convinced I’ll find more converts, but there’s an outcry, a millionaire who pretends to care about the poor, who are you kidding, what did Patricia do to change the world, rob a bank? I spout back what are they doing, besides carefully avoiding anything which might slow down their progress, and towards what exactly are they racing with such fervor, I get a 5 out of 20, my work declared “off subject.”

Violaine accompanies me in my humiliations and my questions, cajoles them, anticipates them. She’s no longer the reserved older sister of my childhood who makes me crepes, but a methodical genius with high-speed reasoning, no one besides me knows her, my bilingual heroine saved Patricia in two weeks time with an incredible American. My parents worry more and more about what the two of us are fabricating together, Violaine is after all a mature woman, she’s just celebrated her 40th birthday, and when they pronounce the word “fabricating” their discomfort is palpable, their embarrassment about what they imagine we might be scheming up together.
I’m 18 years old and just barely manage to graduate, my parents want me to “broaden my horizons and create some distance, this school will open doors for me, Bordeaux is a very beautiful city.” I leave behind the fine November rain, the foggy June nights on the cornfields, the mauve thistles, the storms which erode the dunes and Violaine.

If Violaine could only see what they open up to, these doors vaunted by my parents…. Every night I complain on the telephone about my courses in “commercial strategy,” a real brainwashing. Violaine puts me at ease, my brain will resist this like all the rest, I’ve already been subjected to dozens of brainwashings since I was born, my parents, school, the media, religion, and herself all pleading culpable. She sends me numerous letters, no one can force me to stay in this school, photos of the beach and its ferns already turning brown ahead of winter, also one of Lenny, and this text she thinks will please me, its author wrote it when she was exactly my age, 19:

“It seems to me that the term ‘brainwashing’ only makes sense when it designates the process that starts with the education system and is perpetuated by the media, this process by which people are conditioned to passivity, to accepting their pre-destined roles, that of slaves of the dominant class. If I’ve been subjected to any brainwashing, it’s that which conditions all of us to accept and hang on to our place in society. I spent 12 years in private schools surrounded by young people pre-occupied with pursuing their aspirations to dominate. Retrospectively, for me these schools are a training ground for the formation of future little fascists, we’re encouraged to develop all the values of capitalism: individualism, the sense of competition, not to mention racism.”

Tania Hearst takes the words right out of my mouth, I cite her in my paper, I copy this paragraph and hand it out to my fellow students, suggesting that we have a debate about it, isn’t this exactly what’s happening in this school, what are they training us for? The school authorities rapidly summon me and suggest that I “reconsider my objectives.”

I’m 22 years old. I live in a hole-in-the-wall studio apartment in the 18th arrondissement of Paris below Montmartre. I’ve roamed from one university to the next and attempted three freshman years without conviction or success, a year of Anglo-American literature, a year of sociology, and a semester of history, I’ve worked as a waitress, perfume saleswoman, baby-sitter and dog-sitter, translator of various manuals, hair-dryers, bathroom scales and hydrating lotions, none of them lasted and I couldn’t care less, my life starts the moment I push open the doors of the National French Library, I’ve picked up the habit of reading American newspapers several times per week. The ceremonious silence of the room is soothing, I leaf through Time, Newsweek, Life, snuggling up with them as time blurs. These hollowed out moments are where I live, I have no place else to be, going back to my parents’ house is unthinkable, and I get lost in Paris, I shy away from the impatient masses who push and press but to get where? I don’t really think about Patricia Hearst, I forget about her like the childhood friend you hung out with too much and who you now need to break free of. I’ve not responded to Violaine’s latest letters, which have begun to space themselves out.

For the first time in years, in December 2000 I spend New Year’s week at my parents’. They’re sorry to report that Violaine appears to be losing it little by little from living alone, now she’s defending two students at the Dax high school who want to wear the veil, Violaine’s not even Muslim, as far as we know! She wrote a letter to the principal, a bizarre petition in which she sticks up for “teenagers who expose that which embarrasses us. Some are punk rockers, others might wear the veil. We who describe these girls as prisoners and say they’re being manipulated, are we so sure we’re free?” The children no longer scramble to get to her house for snack-time.

I visit her the next day, guilty to have been out of touch for so long, but she hugs me tightly for a long time. She’s just signed up for unemployment. It’s harder and harder to find translating work; it would seem that everyone now speaks perfect English, she rails. On the surface immune to the sarcasm she’s been subjected to since the business of the high school girls, she leaves me admiring her propensity for solitude. She’s so thin I take pity on her, I want to protect or force-feed her. And yet this body isn’t fragile at all but honed by years of effort, Violaine doesn’t cede to anything.

I’m 30 I’m 32, she comes to Paris regularly to visit me, worried about “being under-foot,” she sleeps on a mattress on the floor and gets up noiselessly at dawn, Violaine disappears for entire days. At first, delighted, she copies the names of streets down like a poem she’s just discovered, she loves crossing the bridges, all the bridges! Monuments everywhere you turn! Stonework everywhere, the palaces, churches, banks, and ministries. And the stores, the restaurants, is there any place where you don’t have to pay for the right to sit down, why do all the parks close at 7 p.m.? All I see in this city, she writes me in a note left one morning, is the overwhelming proof of what we’ve enabled to be erected, no one looks at each other, we’re just statistics and social roles. She hopes I won’t hold it against her but she needs to return to her beloved ocean, with its insistent currents, a space where, as Mademoiselle Neveva used to say, “everything is possible but nothing is guaranteed.” To my parents whom she runs into from time to time and who fret about my wandering – spending the whole day in the library, this is not a job! — she retorts dryly that wandering is courageous work and should be obligatory, like doubting. She warns me on the phone, she doesn’t want me showing up one morning on her doorstep announcing I’m pregnant and am moving back, don’t come home. For that matter, why not go to America for a few weeks, me who gets by so well in English. I get excited, suggest to Violaine that we go in the summer, I’ve found a cheap flight and a youth hostel in Northampton, we can visit the campus. She shakes her head without responding as if I were a child she doesn’t want to answer directly, we’ll see.

I’m 37 years old, we’re in 2015, young women are vanishing from their homes. They’re signaled at the frontiers, designated “S” (Suspect), written up in organizational charts, with graphics illustrating the co-relations between them: Coming from middle class homes for the most part, they range from 15 to 25 years old, and displayed no signs in the preceding months of what was to come. The parents didn’t see it coming when they discovered, stupefied, the B-sides of their children on the ‘Net, in video messages they demand accusingly, in monotone voices, How can we claim to be humanists when in the face of injustice we do nothing, are we not guilty, with our indifference to the poor? Let’s admit it and say it out loud, they’re a warning. For hours and hours I watch the reportages, read and cut out the articles for no reason, without any particular end in mind, pages and pages of questions, why these girls, to whom everything was permitted and who now grace the magazine covers, they stare out at the camera, an arm flattening out their breasts dissimulated under a jumble of fabric. I send the articles to Violaine, the declarations of adults panicked by these impenetrable young girls and who
propose to ‘reprogram’ them in a few weeks. Violaine is initially skeptical, Patricia
didn’t want to kill anyone, the SLA’s credo was humanist even if it failed, be careful about over-simplifications. We pick up our abandoned discussions, these editorials, 40 years later, employ the same words as in 1975, Could they be our daughters, our sisters, our friends? Violaine answers with a short phrase copied onto a visiting card: “What some people call ‘conversion’ or see as a sudden change isn’t one at all but rather a slow process of development, a bit like that of photographs, you know.” — Patricia Hearst (Tania).

The Lutèce Diaries, 26: Dimensions

Lembereur Haut OSP GalleryMarcel Lempereur-Haut, “Tete-mécanisée” (Mechanized head), 1916-1970. Oil on panel. Among the galleries in Saint-Germain-des-Près maintaining the standard set by their ancestors in the late 1940s and 1950s is OSP – Oeuvres sur Papier, with its self-professed “pronounced taste for the forgotten, the inclassable, women, writer-drawers, etching maniacs, and young painters.” The OSP also likes juxtapositions. Its recent exhibition at 7, rue Visconti — itself a mythic gallery street — paired the Modernist heads, hearts, and stars of Lempereur-Haut (1898 – 1986) with the drawings and water-colors (see below) of contemporary artist Maximilien Pellet (b. 1991), for whom, says the gallerist, “the hour of hyper-consumation visual, of the digestion of images is significant.” Photo by and courtesy Galerie OSP.

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Text copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

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PARIS — Nearing the end of my virgin visit to Paris one brisk November afternoon in 2001, I stepped on my tippy-toes to touch a corner of the pedestal of a marble statue on the periphery of one of the two large fountains in the Tuileries gardens, where Augie Renoir and his pals used to pitch stones at the window of the Princess, who would toss bon-bons back at them. The idea was that a future Paul had touched the same spot and assured me “You’ll be back.” Which I did when I was, and have continued to do over the years (on both the receiving and giving end). If I chose this particular statue, it was probably because it featured a bare-breasted woman leaning (protectively I thought) over a child. (Living at the time in New York — where nary a human bronze bust was bared and a polychrome cow had caused a scandal because its teats weren’t covered — I’d found the French embrace of the beauty of the naked human body refreshing.)

It wasn’t until Friday afternoon, returning to the Tuileries for the first time on this Paris stay and wanting to record the actual name of the statue for you, that I realized the woman (sculpted by Pal Gasq in 1893 and installed in the Tuileries since 1904) was Medea and the child was screaming.

lapotoc on laissera des traces“On laissera des traces,” Lapotoc. Painting and collage, on view through April 13 at the galerie ArtAme at 37 rue Ramponeau in Paris. (See below.) “Immersed between reality and fiction, my world is a mix of painting, words, and images-matter, with my personal history as the common denominator,” says the artist. “I work with the individual and collective sub-conscious, attempting to echo that which unites and divides us. It’s a voyage between my own life experience and that of the regardeur. My collage technique is fragmentation, based on my piecemeal vision of the world.” Courtesy Lapotoc.

But this first brilliant Spring day in Paris, palpably emanating from the alabaster sculptures arrayed around the gardens washed in the late afternoon sunlight, was too sublime to let a little Greek blood-lust way-lay my plans, which were to secure a reclining green iron chair in front of my favorite fountain — the small one at the Louvre end and Seine side of the park, a favorite of the locals — and sip my thermos coffee ‘a petites gouts’ (as Simenon’s Commissar Maigret does after his wife serves him in bed) while marveling at the statuary. The chair was waiting for me, offering the unanticipated benefit of a side view on the Eiffel tower under the partly clouded sky. The mallards in the pond outnumbered the female ducks four to two, with one already ushering in the season by vigorously bobbing his head in the universally recognized sign for “Let’s get it on.” (After playing it coy, she eventually bobbed back.)

A young couple across the pond from me was mimicking the ducks, only their heads weren’t bobbing but nuzzling. Between them and me a voluptuous blonde woman in a summer dress more willowy than she was sat down next to a male friend and gathered her arms around her scrunched-up knees as the wind blew the dress up to reveal her pallid gams.

When I poured my first cup of coffee (healthily dosed with nutmeg and cinnamon), reclined back, and sipped — continuing a ritual initiated 15 years ago after a meeting at the American consulate with the Paris representative of the IRS (no doubt the cushiest job in the agency; I’d loved the juxtaposition of an inevitably stressful meeting, although Monsieur. Greg Burns was incredibly helpful, and the least stressful most bucolic pastime one can imagine, sipping coffee before a fountain in the Tuileries), j’était rempli and sated.

Given the way the day of my most recent visit had begun, I shouldn’t have been surprised by the apparition of Medea.

“Je suis venu pour mes jumeaux,” I’ve come for my twins, I’d announced to the butcheresse at the marché on the Place des Fetes, high atop the rue Belleville (and where the market scenes in Cedric Klapisch’s “Paris” may have been shot, which would explain why I was looking for Juliette Binoche at every counter). At first she had no idea what I was talking about, understandable given that the last time I’d seen her, and used this line, was in November 2015, right after the Paris massacres, over which we’d commiserated. (“I just don’t understand how someone could do something like that,” she’d told me.) “Les lapins,” I clarified (we’re back in 2019), pointing down at the two for 12 Euro rabbits splayed out in the vitrine. “The price has gone up!” (It had been 10 for two since 2009, when I first started provisioning myself at the market.)

“Clients keep telling us that, even though we changed it in September.”

“I haven’t been here since 2015!”

“Do you want me to slice them up for you?” she asked, wielding a long narrow blade.

“Yes, just don’t forget the heads, they give it taste.”

When she bobbled one of the noggins, I couldn’t resist: “Don’t lose your head!” After I’d paid I asked, “Can I leave them here while I do the rest of my marketing?”

“Yes, we’ll keep them au frais.”

By the time I’d come back she’d apparently remembered our routine of four years ago. “Rabbits, rabbits? I have no idea what he’s talking about” she told a colleague when I returned to fetch the twins.

“Comme toujours!” I retorted.

“Come back again, before 2021!”

In fact she’d given me an excuse to return much sooner. When I’d asked if she (I keep referring to her as ‘she’ because I’ve realized that neither ‘butcheresse’ nor a physical description can do justice to the way her beauty startled me) had a recipe for Lapin au moutarde, “because I’ll be making Lapin au chasseur with the first one,” she’d begun with “it’s a lot less complicated than Lapin au chasseur.” My idea was to come back Sunday to offer her a portion of my “Hunter’s rabbit,” a dish I’ve been perfecting for 15 years, since I found the recipe in an Astra ad in the “Adieu a Churchill” 1965 issue of Paris Match. (Which I did on Sunday. Lifting the plastic quince paté container into which I’d placed the sample, she suggested, “Come back next Friday for the desert!”)

En attendant this next move, there I was this past Friday afternoon watching the ducks and other humans mating at the Tuileries fountain, decided to indulge myself with a second cup of thermos coffee. This would have to be the limit because of the paucity of toilets within a five-mile radius of the park. When the Sun disappeared, the wind kicked up, and my neighbors lit up, I decided to continue to the gardens of the Palais Royale, where an alleged vernissage had provided the putative excuse for Friday’s expedition. (I know, I shouldn’t need one to go to the Tuileries; it’s the practical Taurus in me.)

OSP PelletMaximilien Pellet, Untitled, 2018. Water-color and ink on paper. Photo by and courtesy Galerie OSP. (See above for more information on the gallery, its aesthetic, and this artist.)

I never found the exhibition, and the “Cocteau – Colette – Palais Royale” banner pasted to the gardens’ grill after I hop-scotched over the Daniel Burin black and white columns turned out to just be announcing that they both once lived there, but I did get to surreptiously watch a Spanish girl who sat down in the green iron chair next to me on the lip of the multi-spigot fountain carefully select a fountain pen from a small case and start sketching pictures of a far building and the tree-tops bisecting its view. When the wind picked up more and started blowing the water on me, I headed out of the gardens, turning from the short cobblestoned uphill street at the exit onto the rue Vivienne, intending to check out the bookstalls in the glass-covered Vivienne arcade. Two tres chic French girls were excitedly gaggling in the middle of the street ahead of me while marching towards their Friday evening no doubt on the Grandes Boulevards, and I’d just concluded that the one with her blonde hair bunched up artfully was another French girl I could fall in love with when she spat ungraciously and inconsequently on the cobblestones.

After walking down the long glassed arcade of the Vivienne I turned on to a corner to re-find my source for all things Max Jacob and Kees von Dongen (I’m always getting lost in and confounding the Vivienne, Panoramic, and Victoires arcades, one of which spits you out onto the Grandes Boulevards), where the bookseller was hurriedly clearing the tables outside his shop and putting the books on the 2 Euro bargain table into cartons so that he could close. Too late for me to peruse.

Van dongen de seine 1962From Artcurial’s recent Estampes & Livres auction in Paris: Kees van Dongen, “De Seine,” 1962. Color lithograph on Japan paper, 39.1 x 59.7 cm Signed and justified “III/X.” Image copyright and courtesy Artcurial.

I did, however, discover a sanitaire that hadn’t been on my Paris toilet radar. (This is rare.) And one whose soggy floor — unlike at least half of the municipally operated sanitaires in Paris I’ve inspected — wasn’t covered in shit, despite that they’re supposedly automatically washed after each use. And had toilet paper. (Half the dispensaries are empty.) Toilet paper that on your fanny actually felt like toilet paper. This is probably because this particular sanitaire was located just outside the French stock market, on top of the 3 Metro station.

In the Metro car there was more cardboard and another blonde, this one natural, wearing an oversized plaid Mackinaw and who instead of clinging to a cell-phone as if it were a lifeline like nine in ten subway passengers I see was holding up a subway-car height, three-foot wide carton side on the top of which was scrawled:

“Et si on parlait de l’intelligence?” (How about if we talk about intelligence?)

As the girl — who might have been in her last year of high school or first year of college — looked up at me shyly I leaned my head sideways to read the rest. Under the title was written “Jours d’entrainment,” Training Days, and under that was a list of columns, suggesting a sort of intellectual Olympics, dividing the visual and other response times of “Homo-Sapiens” and “Homo Neanderthals.” (Note that I’m not the one who brought up Trump.) At the lower right corner of the slat under a cut-out of the title of the sports weekly “L’equipe” (the team) someone had added “Scientific!”

When the girl realized I was copying this all down — that I was a reporter — she raised her magazine to hide behind it.

I finished just in time to hop out at the station Arts & Metiers, whose shiny copper-colored metal walls with their displays behind portals make you feel like you’re in a submarine designed by Jules Verne.

lapotoc don't be afraid“Don’t be Afraid,” Lapotoc. Painting and collage. Courtesy Lapotoc and on view at the galerie ArtAme in Paris through April 13.

More provocative phrases awaited me when I surfaced at Belleville, these mixed into collages by the eponymous Lapotoc, who through April 13 is sharing an exhibition with Farah Iaaich in the Galerie ArtAme (Art & Soul) at 37, rue Ramponeau, a street on which the state of artists if not art is fragile after a long fight to save the ateliers and one of Belleville’s last craftsmen workshops from eviction by city hall in a mixed-use building at No. 48.

If I continue to believe that it’s vital to support an artistic presence in what’s fast being transformed into BoBoville, this does not mean that all the art I’ve seen in Belleville this season is vital. In contrast to Saint-Germain des Pres, where the standard of the exhibitions I’ve caught in recent months often rivals the golden period of the late 1940s and 1950s, in Belleville the vernissages I’ve attended seem to be mostly populated by friends of the artists and if it’s unfair to categorize all of them as Sunday painters, many of the artists wear the etiquette “auto-didact” like a badge of honor, as if they’re proud of having received no formal training, even if this gap often reveals itself in a lack of rigor. Soit, but when this extends to ignoring their own history, it’s often manifest in work that presents itself as new but which in fact is derivative even if the author doesn’t know what it’s derived from.

So it was that fresh off the vernissage for an exhibition of animal art I’d attended Thursday at the gallery of the Associated Artists of Belleville (at least this time we weren’t treated to the cruelty of one artist bringing a live rabbit wearing a tutu), not to mention the alleged Palais Royale exhibition which had posed me as a lapin (= stood me up), I was already not of a particularly open disposition when I walked into Art & Soul. It didn’t help when the (no doubt well-meaning) gallery owner introduced one of the artists with “This is the Artist.” “This is the spectator. And journalist,” I couldn’t help responding. If I didn’t quite wince when I saw the catch-phrases mixed with catch-images (some of which were captured on Google Images, the artist in this case, Lapotoc, notes; I do have a problem with this generic attribution — before they got to Google, those images were made by real people), I still thought, “This isn’t new.” So it was as much to demonstrate my own smarts as to earnestly dialogue with the artist that I asked, pointing at a large work taking up most of one wall, “Is the canvas hand-made paper?,” noting the material’s warped shape. “No,” this “gondola” effect is the canvas’s response to the glue and other matter with which the collaged cut-outs are pasted on to it, Lapotoc explained. When she added that her purpose was to create matter for dialogue I offered, “For example, the juxtaposition between the phrase ‘Tout un parfum,’ the woman’s naked back and… is that an atomic symbol?” I was expecting a response but instead she just nodded.

Lapotoc tout un parfum“Tout un parfum,” Lapotoc. Painting and collage. Courtesy Lapotoc and on view at the galerie ArtAme in Paris through April 13.

If I dutifully copied down phrases from three other collages which particularly spoke to me — “Don’t be afraid,” “On laissera des traces” (We will leave traces), and, from the canvas “Vaisseau Beauté,” “Parce que je le vaux,” (Because I deserve it) it was just to have some images to request to accompany this chronique; even if they resonated with me personally, the phrases still seemed straight out of a women’s self-help book and once I got home I couldn’t remember any of the images.

But a funny thing happened as I was writing this piece. When the images of the four works arrived in my e-mail box from Lapotoc, they had the opposite effect of that of seeing them in front of me. The gondola’d shape and texture of the canvas didn’t come across in the two-dimensional electronic format. But it wasn’t just the words in “On laissera des traces” that left me in tears, and “Don’t be afraid,” with a unit of cell phones replacing the body between a hanging head and stilletos, seemed to crystalize the horror of seeing all these people on the Metros riveted to their devices. (And me to my laptop here in Paris, which is why I don’t have an Internet connection at my regular digs.) The images had put my verbal description of this phenomenon into a visceral form. Although I can’t help wondering if, at least in this particular work, Lapotoc is using the words as a crutch; I’m not sure we need them.

lapotoc vaisseau beaute jpeg“Vaisseau Beauté,” Lapotoc. Painting and collage. Courtesy Lapotoc and on view at the galerie ArtAme in Paris through April 13.

Another thing art does, besides giving aesthetic form to our ideas and sentiments, is to invest us with the capability to view quotidian things and circumstances — our surroundings and environments — with an artistic sensibility. I already have this sensibility when I walk the streets and ride the Metros of Paris and observe certain things that resonate with my own life experience and references, or even in the greater story of Paris or of me in Paris. But what happened to me Friday night after leaving Lapotoc’s exhibition was that her artistic sensibility immediately imbued a banal object that has never interested me or resonated with me before with an exquisite beauty.

I don’t identify at all with swimmers or find myself in a swimming pool. The former (with the exception of my mentor; you know who you are) intimidate me and the latter frighten me. And yet when just moments after leaving Art & Soul, wanting to avoid the busy boulevard Belleville, I turned down a cobbled pedestrian alley one block up that I’ve been by-passing for 10 years because it’s too branché (hip), I found myself stopped and standing before the glass front of a building I’d never even noticed before: A swimming pool. The symmetry of the pool with its curved ceiling, the light reflecting off and from the bottom of the water, the contrast of that light with the night outside and the penumbra of the alley, the syncopated bodies with their slowly churning arms, their ’20s-style bathing caps which made the scene timeless — something left me so transfixed that I even read the entire two long poster-length “A History of Swimming Pools in Paris” affixed to the window. Seeing this perfect beauty — in relation to, what, the garbage around it (Paris and particularly the Right Bank is filthy)? The garbage in the air (and more polluted than ever)? The crowds? (The swimmers moved neatly and orderly in the lanes without crowding each other.) The contrast of this immaculate scene with the memory of the dirty, gym-sweat smelling, often-underground municipal swimming pools of my San Francisco youth?

I think rather it was that something in Lapotoc’s artistic way of seeing — as chaotic and crowded and sometimes even n’importe quoi some of her oeuvres seen Friday seem to me — had managed to expand even my own over-stimulated vision and way of seeing.

I’m not sure why this artist had this effect on my vision; she didn’t so much impress me as empower, or expand my ability to be impressed by even the most ordinary of surroundings. (This continued Saturday, when the crepuscule found me paused on the rue Buffon that flanks the Jardin des Plantes, leaning against the garden’s stone wall and iron fence and fascinated by a solitary tree projecting over the street from the fence, the vetuse shutters on an ancient apartment building, an oval window under the roof of another, the sunlight glinting on the chrome surface of a modern office building at the end of the street.) Maybe it’s her sincerity or determination to put the whole ugly beautiful sensory mess on a canvas without too much concern to organize or arrange it. But how often is art able to accomplish this? To not only make you see what the artist is seeing, but to expand your general vision once you leave the work of art?

The Lutèce Diaries, 25: Montmartre, copyright “Amélie” or, Why a duck shop bothers me so much

Gen Paul Montmartre rue NorvinsGen Paul (1895-1975), “Le bureau de tabac, rue Norvins et le Sacre-Coeur,” circa 1928-29. Oil on canvas, 28.74 x 36.22 inches. Signed lower right, signed again and dated on the reverse. The artist was part of the controversial writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s circle during his Montmartre years — and sometimes his target, as he had only one real leg. Estimated price for Artcurial’s March 20 Art of the 20th Century, 1900 – 1950 sale in Paris: 22,000 – 28,000 Euros.  Image courtesy and copyright Artcurial.

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Text copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

Dedicated to Martin Epstein on this his birthday. For the teaching.

PARIS — The last time I saw Montmartre, heart bleeding and gums aching, I made it as high as the grave of François Truffaut (down the path from Zola and up the hill from “Camille”), where, after imbibing a Paracetemol cocktail, I shouted “J’accuse” at the author of the five-film Antoine Doinel cycle that began with “The 400 Blows” for filling me up with an ideal of Paris love that did not exist. But Paris fairy-tale dreams die hard, so there I was  again Monday afternoon huffing and puffing my way up the 400 flights of stairs from the netherworld of the Abbesses Metro, no doubt neighboring the subterranean tunnel through which is shot the pneumatic Delphine Seyrig (as the wife of his shoe-store owner boss) sends Antoine fixing a tryst in “Stolen Kisses,” the third film.

The first indication I had that Montmartre had accelerated its downhill slide into the mother of all Tourist-lands was a sign on the rue Yvonne le Tac: “The Paris Duck Store.” As la belle-mere, who used to furnish me with a steady supply of the buoyant creatures when she had a San Francisco boutique called Common Scents, will confirm, I’ve got nothing against rubber duckies. The problem I have with “The Paris Duck Store” is that it could be anywhere. Its various canard characters — Prince, a Rasta duck that I guess was supposed to be Bob Marley, even a Trump duck (“He is surrounded by two devil ducks!,” the duck sales clerk tried to assure me) — have nothing to do with Paris. No Jean Gabin duck. No Piaf duck. No Montand duck. No De Gaulle duck and no Godard duck. No “Amélie” duck. (We’ll get back to her.) Not even a “Yellow-Vested” duck. And indeed the Duck Store, which originated in Amsterdam, is now everywhere. “We have ten duck stores all over Europe!” the sales clerk proudly informed me. (This genericizing of Paris is not confined to Montmartre. As a fellow Parisian recently complained to me, “You emerge from your apartment building, you look at the café across the street, and you could be anywhere in the world.”)

Where exactly is the Paris in the Paris Duck Store? And where is the Montmartre? (And if your answer is “It’s the free market, buddy,” mine is that in Paris, the mayor has the right to a certain degree of commerce control to preserve a neighborhood’s historic character.)

Suzanne Valadon nu sortant du bain smallSuzanne Valadon (1865-1938), “Nu sortant du bain, circa 1904.  Sanguine and crayon gras on paper. 25 x 20.30 cm.  Collection Paul Lombard.  Image courtesy and copyright Artcurial from its 2017 sale of the Collection of Paul Lombard. (Arts Voyager Archives.)

As I continued down the street towards the Square Suzanne Valadon at the base of the park below Sacre-Coeur where the funicular would take me to the “Butte” or top of Montmartre, I thought about how the Communards, who put up barricades around Montmartre and Belleville (provisions were dropped into the park from hot air balloons) in 1871 to protest Versailles’ capitulation to the Germans, might feel if they knew that the cradle of their movement had been invaded by Dutch rubber duckies. (Not to mention whether Sesame Street’s Ernie would still think that his Rubber Ducky made bathing lots of fun if the petite canard had orange hair and tried to build a wall around the bathtub to keep out Gordon, Mr. Looper, and that transspecies fruitcake Big Bird.) Pondering this revolting development as the single petite transparent Metro car took me up to Sacre-Coeur while contemplating from its window the winding stairways of the park around which a caped and masked Audrey Tatou had tantalized Mathieu Kassovitz in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “The Fabulous Destiny of Amélie Poulain,” I decided to take the matter up with the Chevalier de la Barre.

Being burned at the stake in 1766 at the age of 19 after having his tongue and hands cut off when he refused to doff his cap before and hurled impudent ditties at a procession of religious notables earned the Chevalier de la Barre the right to his own statue, which now presides over a narrow oblong park just below Sacre-Coeur. (This is kind of a French thing; they burn you at the stake and then give you a statue.) After saluting him by removing mine (cap), I turned my back to the Chevalier so that I could sit on a bench looking out through bare winter trees over Paris and the Eiffel Tower, standing sentry in the midst of the late-afternoon dappled sky. As I sipped my hot thermos ginger-rosehip tea, the Paris moment was perfect. When the pigeons crashed the party, I left the park and, after negotiating the crowd of tourists along the rue Norvins and saluting the ghosts of Valadon, her lover Felix Utter, and her son Maurice Utrillo on the narrow rue Rustique from which their late-night arguments used to echo through the village (she served as Renoir’s model before taking lessons from Degas and becoming a painter in her own right after giving up the idea of flying the trapeze with the Medrano circus; her son is singularly responsible for the postcard image Montmartre has today), turned left onto the rue Cortot to visit with Satie, who from 1890 to 1898 created Minimalism in a small chamber at No. 6, a sign on the elevated building above the paved street informs us. (A couple of blocks below chez Satie Pissarro holed up in a studio making pastel drawings of the rue Vincent, which leads to the village’s wine orchards.)

After I repeated a future wedding ritual under the trelisse of the park at the other side of the church I’ve practiced since I used to jog up to the Butte along the rue des Martyrs from my flat on the rue de Paradis in the 2000s, I and my Montmartre retrouvaille went downhill. Descending Lamarck, I found a restaurant on a catty-corner whose high terrace looked out on a story-typical Montmartre view. The reasonably priced menu looked appealing until I noticed the non-translation (not just a bad translation; it made something up) of “Pommes Sarladoise,” which — as they should — were listed as accompanying the duck confit: “Oven-cooked with butter.” As any Perigordin worth the salt in which he preserves his duck knows, Pommes (Potatoes) Sarladoise — the recipe originated in Sarlat, 19K from the Dordogne village where I live — are cooked not in butter but duck or goose fat. When I verified with the server that his restaurant observed this rule and informed him of the bad translation (duck fat into butter), he just laughed. I don’t think he realized that if tourists come to Paris, it’s not just to get fatted up but because they appreciate that the French take their food seriously; they know the difference between duck fat and butter. (Which these days in is more expensive in France than duck or even goose fat.)

If subsequent English menus I spotted were correct — apart from that of the café off Norvins which offered “hot got cheese salad” — this was probably because there are only so many ways you can spell “French Onion Soup,” which featured on the carte du jour of most of the restaurants I passed while careening down the rue Caulaincourt (trying to avoid the omnipresent green and grey construction barriers) back towards the cemetery. In other words, at least judging by the menus Montmartre has become the worst example of Paris-land I’ve seen since I returned here in January, giving the tourists a cardboard version of Paris and France which only confirms their most tired stereotypes and has little to do with the real Paris of today.

As far as tourist traps go, the worst offender — as I discovered after turning down Lepic (where Van Gogh once talked sales strategy with his brother before heading down to the Grands Boulevards to try to sell his paintings to Goupil) from Joseph le Maistre after pausing on the bridge over the cemetery (which figures in three of the Antoine films) to watch the crepuscular Sun piercing the gathering storm clouds — is the Café des deux moulins (so dubbed because it’s midway between the Moulin Rouge and the Moulin Galette immortalized by Renoir and later Utrillo), the real restaurant where the fake heroine worked in “The Fabulous Destiny of Amélie Poulain.” The film poster which immediately went up in the wake of the global success of Jeunet’s movie was understandable; something had to tell the gaggles of Japanese girls who turned up that they were in the right place. But “Amélie,” or more precisely the exploitation of tourists in the name of everything “Amélie,” has now completely taken over what once actually was — in real life as in the film — a working-class neighborhood café. So you now have the “Amélie gouter” (afternoon snack, usually reserved for schoolchildren; in the Perigord we serve them chilled, watered down, sugared red wine in which they dip stale bread) of Viennese coffee, creme brulé, and a Polaroid (presumably with the Amélie poster): 12.80 Euros. Which is just to fatten you up for the Amélie burgers, whose prices, arrayed on a menu plastered with “Amélie”‘s puckered face, range from 17 to nearly 20 Euros, enough to get you a decent prix fix three course meal in many other restaurants. (Okay, the 20 Euro one includes foie gras, but a resto up the street on le Maistre, le Gascogne, offers the same plus fries and smoked duck breast for less than 16.)

The piece de resistance — or, as we say here, the cerise sur la gateau — is that while I was copying some of the menu down for this diatribe, a short man popped out of the entrance, wagged his finger at me and warned, “No taking notes! Copyright!” The presumption being that I was a competitor stealing his recipe for what goes into a foie gras and hamburger hamburger. (Foie gras, hamburger, and, okay, stewed onions.) In other words, a tourist trap operator shamelessly exploiting a work of art (regardless of whether he has permission to use the Amélie iconography — at presstime, I’d received no response on the question from Jeunet’s official website — it’s still shameless, and a subversion of what this movie is really about) to sell food tchotchkes at inflated prices was lecturing me about copying down recipes any kindergartner could make up.

Montmartre, copyright “Amélie.” Quelle farce! C’est le monde a l’envers.

Because “Amélie,” you see, didn’t just spring from Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s fertile imagination. Like Marcel Carné / Jaques Prevert’s 1947 “Les Portes de la Nuit,” in which a lanky Yves Montand made his debut (and introduced Prevert’s “Autumn Leaves”) wandering through a fairy-tale, oneiric, cauchemaresque Montmartre after missing the last Metro at Barbes; like Piaf singing for her supper on a street corner off Clichy until a local impresario discovered her; like Patachou at her nightclub near the Lapin Agile giving a chance to a young singer-poet, George Brassens, who would go on to become the French equivalent of Bob Dylan (his songs sound better when she sings them); like Picasso and Braque forging Cubism from African artifacts at the Bateau Lavoir; like Picasso, Apollinaire, Marie Laurencin and the rest of the gang converging in his tiny flat to hear the Douanier Rousseau entertain them on his violin in 1910; like Max Jacob, who would later be slated for Deportation, hurrying across the street to his home on the rue Ravignon a few doors up from the Bateau Lavoir clutching his self-published poetry; like Toulouse-Lautrec limping home across the cemetery bridge towards his studio on the rue Tourlaque after transforming whores and can-can dancers into deities; like Boris Vian debating Pataphysics (I’m still not sure what that is) with his neighbor Prevert on their adjoining terraces over the Verdun alley; like Gabrielle posing for Renoir, pere, on the rue Fontaine before returning to comb the long golden locks of Renoir, fils, for whom she was the nanny; like Cezanne trading tableaux for powder with the Pere Tanguy while Tanguy’s dubious wife looked on; like Vuillard capturing the way the light filtered into the flat he shared with his mother looking out on the Square Adolph Max below the boulevard Clichy; like Brel coming to Madame Arthur’s to hear transvestite singers; like Maigret’s Inspector Malgraceux surveilling the flat across the way from him over the square Constantin Pecqueur or Steinlen leaving out bowls of food for his feline models in the same location (I tried taking my tea there too on Monday, but the bench was splattered with pigeon shit and the Steinlen fountain dry); like all these storied ancestors, “Amélie” sprung from the feu follet fermenting in the cemetery and all over Montmartre.

This is why a duck shop bothers me.

Le feuilleton (the Serial), 2 : “Trompe-l’œil” — Michel Ragon’s ground-breaking 1956 satire of the Contemporary Art Market (in French and English), Part Two

By and copyright Michel Ragon
Translation copyright Paul Ben-Itzak

(Original French version follows English translation.)

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Charles was entering his 18th year. He’d only remotely followed the metamorphosis of his parents and was astonished. His father and mother’s sudden passion for Modern Art bewildered him. By nature a bit slow, a good boy with a below average intelligence, he had trouble keeping up with the evolution of his family. When his father praised Klee to the detriment of Kandinsky, he might as well have still been comparing Mumphy underwear to Rasural underwear.

Charles was not subject to this fever which had consumed his loved ones since the adventure of the Paul Klee paintings had begun: it should be pointed out that speculation wasn’t the only engine driving Monsieur Mumfy’s new attitude. If Monsieur Mumfy had become obsessed with abstract painting, it wasn’t just because he was counting on it — following the example of the Klees — to centuple in value, but also because he liked it. In her role as a good spouse, Madame Mumfy accompanied him in this conversion. She who previously had never set foot in a museum these days wouldn’t miss a single vernissage or cocktail if it had anything to do with abstract art. She even tried her hand at a variety of smaller works about which she didn’t make a big deal, even though some galleries wanted to expose them.

When it was decided that Charles would become a painter, Monsieur and Madame Mumfy threw a cocktail party to which they invited all the critics, dealers, and collectors.

Once more everyone raved about the perspicacity of the master of the house, who’d had the acumen to build such a stellar collection of Klees.

“When one considers,” proclaimed Charles Roy, “that the Modern Art Museum of the City of Paris doesn’t have a single Klee, not even a Mondrian, in its collection, it’s scandalous! It’s up to the private collectors to retain for France a few chefs-d’oeuvre of contemporary art. France owes you so much, dear Monsieur Mumfy!”

Monsieur Mumfy was used to inspiring such homages. Little by little he’d convinced himself that he actually had discovered Paul Klee before the war. In the beginning, he was pretending; now he wasn’t lying. He really believed that he’d always loved Klee — for at least the last 20 years anyway. For that matter, the dates on the paintings on his walls seemed to back up this claim. And given that the art critics, the dealers, and the other collectors who frequented his house were themselves recent converts to abstract art, no one could disabuse him of this notion.

The critic Charles Roy, a specialist in abstract art, had burst into the public spotlight with great fanfare after the Libération. Even though he was already in his 50s, his pre-war activity remained fuzzy. In fact, he’d played a laudable role in the Résistance and he was rewarded by being offered his own platform in the press. As he was absolutely incapable of writing in clear French, or at least of paying any attention to the rules of grammar, he was relegated to the art column. In this post which, on a major newspaper, is usually cloistered and innocuous, Charles Roy had succeeded in carving out a niche for himself thanks to his total ignorance of syntax. No one understood a word he wrote, and as he wrote about paintings that no one understood, people just thought it was a new style. Charles Roy was the veritable inventor of this brand of abstract art criticism which, born at the same time as the Academy of Abstract Art in Paris, made people believe in a concordance of genres when in reality it was just one big critical scam which had encrusted itself like a parasite in the haunches of an art form which merited its own Baudelaire or Apollinaire.

If all the major photographers in Paris were inevitably Hungarian, the big art critics were Belgian. Charles Roy was no exception, and his moniker was obviously a pseudonym. His enemies liked to point this out by punning, “He waffles like a real Belgian.”

Like all Johnny-come-latelies, Charles Roy veered from one extreme to another. A salesman of religious tchotchkes for tourists before the war (voila why he changed his name), Charles Roy now recognized only the strictest form of abstract art. Charles’s artistic coming out party found him once again defending this standard to the boy’s father:

“I admire Klee in a historic sense,” he was saying, “but I don’t approve of his anecdotal aspect. It’s literary painting. Art is only justified today if it doesn’t evoke the least parcel of reality.”

“Ah! Don’t touch my Klee!” Monsieur Mumfy responded in a sententious tone. “You can accuse Miro of being literary, or Picasso of being anecdotal, but when you go after Klee in my presence, it’s as if you’re insulting a member of my family.”

At just this moment a brouhaha broke out in the salon at the entrance sur scene of a dwarf who appeared leaning on a small cane with his bifocals perched on a large nose, a dwarf bearing a surprising resemblance to a Toulouse-Lautrec caricature. The guests parted to make way for the dwarf, who stood on his tip-toes to kiss Madame Mumfy’s hand.

Charles Roy and Monsieur Mumfy fell over themselves to see who could get to the dwarf’s side first.

“My dear Laivit-Canne….”

“Monsieur Laivit-Canne….”

The dwarf sank into an easy chair provided by a servant and announced in a nasal voice:

“I’ve just cut off Manhès!”

This declaration was met with a stupefied silence. The majority of those gathered in the salon turned their heads towards the wall, where five paintings by Manhès stared back at them. They seemed to be looking at them for the first time, even though they were all quite familiar with Manhès’s work. In reality, they were seeking out the little imperfections, the vice which might have earned them the disfavor of Laivit-Canne.

It was finally Charles Roy who broke the silence, ingratiatingly enough, to flatter Laivit-Canne:

“Bravo!, Monsieur Laivit-Canne. Manhès’s style might end up selling well, but in fact it’s already passé. It’s not genuine abstract painting.”

The dwarf, ensconced in his cushions, exuded the surly air of a spoiled child. He resumed in swishing his nose for emphasis:

“I don’t give a fig about abstract painting or non-abstract painting, sellable or non-sellable art …. Manhès insulted me — Manhès who owes me everything, Manhès who’d be dead if not for me –”

“Oh!”

The dwarf nimbly scooped up a petit-four from a passing platter, masticated it with determination, and explained:

“Manhès called me a self-hating Jew….”

This unexpected insult created an unease among the guests. Someone ventured:

“Manhès has always struck me as a racist.”

The dwarf sought out the origin of the voice, squinting his eyes, came up empty, and continued:

“I strongly advise you, my dear Mumphy, to sell your Manhèses. Before long they won’t be worth a wooden nickel..”

“There’s no rush, there’s no rush,” joked Monsieur Mumfy with a cheerful bonhomie which broke the tension a little. Then, assuming a stentorian tone, he proclaimed:

“Tonight I’m proud to announce some good news. Charles has decided to choose art over underwear. He’s to be a painter.”

“Which academy will you send him too?” asked one woman, “chez Léger ou chez Lhote?”

“Just don’t tell us he’s going to the Beaux-Arts Academy,” asked another worried woman.

“Don’t be alarmed,” assured Monsieur Mumfy. “He’ll be trained at the right school. I’m going to sign him up for the Abstract Art Academy.”

Big hands started clapping. Those of Charles Roy. The guests formed into groups, depending on their affinities. Many paused in front of Manhés’s paintings, where the conversation was particularly animated. Everyone rushed to shake the hand of Charles, who was starting to get bored.

Version originale par et copyright Michel Ragon:

Charles entrait dans sa dix-huitième année. Il avait assisté à la métamorphose de ses parents sans enthousiasme. La soudaine passion de son père et de sa mère pour l’art moderne le déroutait. D’un naturel un peu niais, bon garçon, d’une intelligence au-dessous de la moyenne, il ne suivit l’évolution de sa famille que de très loin et le souffle coupé. Lorsqu’il entendait son père louer Klee au détriment de Kandinsky, cela lui produisait le même effet que si son géniteur avait fait l’apologie des sous-vêtements Michaud au détriment de sous-vêtements Rasurel.

Charles ne participait pas à cette fièvre qui s’était emparée des siens depuis cette aventure des tableaux de Paul Klee: Il faut dire que la spéculation n’était pas la seul moteur réagissant la nouvelle attitude de Monsieur Michaud. Monsieur Michaud achetait de la peinture abstrait, non seulement parce qu’il comptait bien que celle-ci, a l’exemple des tableaux de Klee, centuple sa valeur, mais aussi parce qu’il aimait ça. En bonne épouse, Madame Michaud l’accompagne dans sa conversion. Elle qui, autrefois, n’avait jamais mis les pieds dans un musée, ne manquait aujourd’hui aucun vernissage, aucun cocktail, concernant l’art abstrait. Elle s’essayait même, comme nous l’avons vu, à certaines petites œuvrettes dont elle avait la sagesse de ne pas faire grand cas et ceci bien que certaines galeries lui aient proposé de les exposer.

Lorsqu’il fut décidé que Charles serait peintre, Monsieur et Madame Michaud donnèrent un cocktail où tous les critiques, marchands, collectionneurs, furent invités.

On s’extasia une fois de plus sur la perspicacité du maître de maison qui avait su réunir une collection de Klee aussi merveilleuse.

— Quand on pense, s’exclama Charles Roy, que le Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris n’a même pas un seul Klee, pas un Mondrian, c’est une scandale ! Il faut que ce soient des collectionneurs privés qui retiennent en France quelques chefs-d’œuvre de l’art actuel. La France vous devra beaucoup, cher Monsieur Michaud !

Monsieur Michaud était habitué a soulever de tels enthousiasmes. Peu à peu, il finit par se convaincre qu’il avait réellement découvert Paul Klee avant la guerre. Au début, il jouait la comédie; maintenant il ne mentait plus. Il était persuadé qu’il avait toujours aimé Klee, depuis vingt ans au moins. D’ailleurs les dates des tableaux sur les murs témoignaient de cette ancienneté. Comme les critiques d’art, les marchands et les autres collectionneurs qui fréquentaient sa maison n’étaient eux aussi convertis à l’art abstrait que depuis fort peu de temps, personne ne pouvait le détromper.

Le critique Charles Roy, spécialiste de l’art abstrait, s’était révélé avec fracas à l’attention du public après la Libération. Bien qu’il fût âgé d’une cinquantaine d’années, son activité avant la guerre restait dans un anonymat très vague. En fait, il eut un rôle très méritoire dans la Résistance et on l’en récompensa en lui créant un fromage dans la presse. Comme il était incapable d’écrire un française clair, ou tout au moins correct, on le relégua dans la chronique des arts. A ce poste, qui, dans un grande journal est en général terne et sans histoire, Charles Roy réussit à se faire un nom grâce à sa méconnaissance totale de la syntaxe. Personne ne comprenant rien à ce qu’il écrivait et comme il parlait de tableaux que personne ne comprenait, on crut à un nouveau style. Charles Roy est le véritable créateur de cette critique d’art abstrait qui, née parallèlement au développement d’une Ecole d’Art Abstrait à Paris, fit croire à une concordance des genres alors qu’il ne s’agissait que d’un cafouillage incrusté en parasite au flanc d’une peinture qui méritait son Baudelaire ou son Apollinaire.

Si, à Paris, les grands photographes sont en général hongrois, les critiques d’art sont belges. Charles Roy n’échappait pas à cette règle et son nom était évidemment un pseudonyme. Ses ennemis disaient même, par un calembour facile : « Il est belge comme pieds. »

Comme tous les néophytes convertis sur le tard, Charles Roy allait d’un extrême à l’autre. Représentant de statuettes du genre Saint-Sulpice avant la guerre (et c’est pour cela qu’il avait changé son nom), Charles Roy n’admettait plus maintenant que l’art abstrait le plus strict. Encore une fois, il se chamaillait à ce propos avec Monsieur Michaud :

— J’admire Klee d’une façon historique, disait-il. Mais je lui reproche son côté anecdotique. C’est de la peinture littéraire. L’art ne se justifie aujourd’hui que s’il n’évoque pas la moindre parcelle de réalité.

— Ah ! ne touchez pas à Klee; répondait Monsieur Michaud d’un ton sentencieux. Vous pouvez me dire que Miro est littéraire, que Picasso est anecdotique, mais lorsqu’on attaque Klee en ma présence, c’est comme si on insultait ma famille.

Il se fit un brouhaha dans le salon et l’on vit entrer un nain, avec une petite canne et des lorgnons sur un gros nez, ressemblant étonnamment à un caricature de Toulouse-Lautrec. Tout le monde s’inclinait au passage du nain qui se haussa sur la pointe des pieds pour baiser la main de Madame Michaud.

Charles Roy et Monsieur Michaud se bousculèrent pour arriver le premier près du nain.

— Mon cher Laivit-Canne…

— Monsieur Laivit-Canne…

Le nain s’enfonça dans un fauteuil que lui avança un domestique et dit d’une voix nasillarde :

— Je viens de couper les vivres à Manhes !

Un silence stupéfait accueillit cette déclaration. La plupart des personnes réunies dans la salon tournèrent la tête vers le mur où cinq tableaux de Manhès étaient accrochés. Elles semblaient les regarder pour la première fois, bien que toutes connussent fort bien la peinture de Manhès. En fait, elles cherchaient l’imperfection, le vice qui leur valait la défaveur de Laivit-Canne.

Ce fut Charles Roy qui rompit le silence, assez bassement, pour flatter Laivit-Canne:

— C’est tout à votre honneur, Monsieur Laivit-Canne. La peinture de Manhès pourrait devenir très commerciale, mais elle est tout à fait dépassée. Ce n’est pas un véritable peintre abstrait.

Le nain, enfoncé dans les coussins, avait l’air hargneux d’un enfant prodige. Il reprit en chuintant du nez :

— M’en fous de la peinture abstraite ou pas abstrait, de la peinture commerciale ou pas commerciale… Mais Manhès m’a injurié, lui qui me doit tout, moi qui le faisais vivre…

— Oh !

Le nain attrapa prestement un petit-four, sur un plateau qui passait, le mastique avec application et dit :

— Manhès m’a traité de Juif honteux…

Cette injure inattendue créa un malaise dans l’assistance. Quelqu’un risqua :

— Manhès m’a toujours paru raciste.

Le nain chercha d’où venait cette voix, en plissant les yeux, ne la reconnut pas, et dit :

— Je vous engage, mon cher Michaud, à vendre vos Manhès, bientôt ils ne vaudront plus rien.

— Ce n’est pas pressé, ce n’est pas pressé, plaisanta Monsieur Michaud avec ne bonhomie enjouée qui dégela un peu l’assistance. Puis, reprenant une voix solennelle :

« Ce soir, je veux vous annoncer une bonne nouvelle. Charles vient de préférer les arts aux sous-vêtements. Il sera peintre. »

— Où l’envoyes-vous, demanda une dame, chez Léger ou chez Lhote ?

— Il ne va pas faire les Beaux-Arts, au moins, s’inquiéta une autre ?

— Ne vous alarmez pas, dit Monsieur Michaud, il sera formé à bonne école. Je vais le faire inscrire à l’Académie d’Art Abstrait.

De grosses mains applaudirent. C’étaient celles de Charles Roy. Des groupes se formèrent dans l’appartement, au gré des sympathies et des antipathies. On allait beaucoup devant les tableaux de Manhés et la conversation s’animait dans ce coin-là. Chacun serait vigoureusement la main à Charles, qui s’ennuyait.

Excerpted from “Trompe-l’œil,” by Michel Ragon, published in 1956 by Éditions Albin Michel, Paris, and copyright Michel Ragon.

L’ÉCLAT DE STAËL — WHEN NICOLAS FLEW TOO CLOSE TO THE SUN

L’ÉCLAT DE STAËL — WHEN NICOLAS FLEW TOO CLOSE TO THE SUN

Stael soleil 5 small

Nicolas de Staël, “Le soleil,” 1953. Oil on canvas, 16 x 24 cm. Private collection. © Adagp, Paris, 2018. Photo: © Jean Louis Losi. Courtesy Culturespaces.

“You are the only modern painter who turns the spectator into a genius.”

— Romain Gary, letter to Nicolas de Staël, cited by Wikipedia

“Tu as élevé le sommet
Que devra franchir mon attente
Quand demain disparaîtra.”

–René Char, “A***,” from “Poéms à dire,” selected by Daniel Gélin, Éditions Seghers, Paris, 1970

Introduction by and copyright Paul Ben-Itzak
AVID / The Arts Voyager Illustrated Diary 
with comments by Gustave de Staël in French and in English translation by PB-I

“I’m looking for that which is essentially organic, vital, and which might furnish the equilibrium at the base of all that follows.”

— Nicolas de Staël, cited in “Paris des temps nouveaux: de l’Impressionism à nos jours,” Editions d’Art Albert Skira, Geneva, 1957

On March 16, 1955, Nicolas de Staël climbed up to the rooftop terrace of his atelier in Antibes and hurled to his death, despondent over an histoire d’amour involving Jeanne Polge, a married woman and an intimate of the author Albert Camus and the poet René Char, also a cohort to both Camus and the 41-year-old painter. It was the denouement of a frenetic two years of creation which in its culminating months saw the Russian-born painter produce as many as three pieces per day, a breakneck pace that prompted his New York gallerist Paul Rosenberg to warn him that his public was starting to worry about dilution. This manic flight towards the Sun — this frenzied éclat of color and creation — accelerated in July 1953, when Staël, seeking the same bright, blistering light of the Midi which had scalded the mind of an earlier epoch’s iconoclast, Vincent Van Gogh, installed himself in the Provençal village of Lagnes, near Avignon, before loading his family into a truck and taking them to Italy, where Sicily and Tuscany would inspire canvases even more infused with light. Returning to France, Staël bought a house in le Castelet, near the Luberon village of Ménerbes, where he remained through October 1954. It’s this fertile period — which saw the painter veer towards a more concrete abstraction, where recognizable forms inspired by the sea and nature started to re-emerge — which is celebrated in the exhibition Nicolas de Staël in Provençe, which closed Sunday at the Hotel de Camont in Aix-en-Provençe. The first monographic show entirely consecrated to this period — in which the artist, inspired by the rich Mediterranean passages and light and his nascent if ultimately impossible love for Polge, produced 254 paintings — the exhibition culls 71 paintings and 26 drawings from an international roll call of public and private collections. (Including the Hirshhorn’s “Nice,” with which Barack Obama once adorned his White House office.) To curate all this, the institution Culturespaces, which runs the museum, secured the participation of no less than Gustave de Staël, the artist’s son, and Marie du Bouchet, his grand-daughter….

Rather than cop more details from Staël’s Wikipedia page (which blessedly favors the telling and authoritative critical citation on the artist’s various creative stages over the maudlin anecdote), here we’ll simply share images of some of the work, generously provided by Culturespaces, and translate from the catalog some of Gustave de Staël’s poignant memories of le Castelet and the manner in which his father chose to inhabit the manor with his work — the most intimate connection the son would ever be able to forge with a father who killed himself when the boy was less than one year old.

I would like to offer one historical comparison. While the public marveled at the integral result – produced while working in the same Provençal terrain as Staël  here — Cezanne when he painted saw distinctly isolated spheres.  The former (I think this is what Gary meant in the observation cited above), in a sort of reverse-process of that co-invented by his master Braque, let’s us see the spheres.

Stael vauclouse sky 15Nicolas de Staël, “Ciel de Vaucluse,” 1953. Oil on canvas, 16 x 24 cm. © Adagp, Paris, 2018. Photo: © Jean Louis Losi. Courtesy Culturespaces.

An Inaccessible Place

by Gustave de Staël
Translated by Paul Ben-Itzak

(Scroll down for original French version.)

I was free as the air in this 16th-century building where impressions of nature alternated with painting.

Situated at the edge of the fortified village of Ménerbes, it’s bird’s-eye view reaching all the way to le Castelet opened up the whole and immense expanse of Provençe. In acquiring it, did our father want to place us ideally in face of the space and the mysterious radiance of the colors of the South, on the path of a dimension that he sought out in painting…?

Stael trees and houses 18Nicolas de Staël, “Arbres et maisons,” 1953, oil on canvas, 65 x 81 cm. Private collection. Courtesy Applicat-Prazan, Paris. © Adagp, Paris, 2018. Photo: © Applicat-Prazan.

This architecture, flanked by a tiny hamlet, presented a combination of equilibriums, of accidents, of incomplete parts. The facade had been battered by the elements for centuries. This construction standing up against the wind was the very picture of the challenge my father had taken on; and when a painter is obsessed by a vision or an idea, no wind, no cold can stop him.

stael paysage de provence 100

Nicolas de Staël, “Paysage de Provence,” 1953. Oil on canvas, 33 x 46 cm. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. © Adagp, Paris, 2018. Photo: © Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. Courtesy Culturespaces.

Once I’d climbed up one of the escalating horseshoe-shaped hills —  which recalled the rhythm of the stone-grey touches of his painting — once I’d walked past the chapel in following the pebbled border, I cleared the front door to find myself at the foot of an old stone staircase. Because the steps had been smoothed out by years of excessive usage, the staircase carried me practically without effort to the high-ceilinged, light-filled rooms on the second floor, which included the studio, which I entered with an elevated attention to confront the determination, the independence, and the multitude of visions offered by the paintings.

Stael passage 10Nicolas de Staël, “Paysage,” 1953. Oil on canvas, 100 x 73 cm. Private collection. © Adagp, Paris, 2018. Photo: © Jean Louis Losi. Courtesy Culturespaces. If the artist was already employing squares – such as in his 1952 painting “The Rooftops of Paris” – in Provençe he put them to wider use as the building blocks for more apparent representation.

They were arrayed in no particular order, some right on the floor, along the walls, without anything — even a frame — which might have provided some perspective on what they recounted.  Some of them (just to cite a few, colors aside), hung from the walls, such as the large landscape of Sicily with the flat Moroccan green sky which he had continued to dig at with his trowel.

Stael Sicily 9Nicolas de Staël, “Sicile,” 1954. Oil on canvas, 60 x 81 cm. Private collection.  © Adagp, Paris, 2018. Photo: © Jean Louis Losi. Courtesy Culturespaces.

This painting projected me into an acceleration and more rapid rhythm of life — with this painting, another world opened up before me, entirely inhabited, differently more present, differently more real, pure and color-infused. This painting made me examine the frantic scramble of my father towards the dazzling reality of life. This painting claims raw space — clear, distinct, with the shock of a presence, with a profundity that precipitates us towards the confines of life….

Stael sea 11Nicolas de Staël, “Paysage,” 1953. Oil on canvas, 14 x 22 cm. Private collection. © Adagp, Paris, 2018. Photo: © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Courtesy Culturespaces.

All the small paintings posed on his studio’s chimney represent so many respirations, alive with fresh notes seized quickly on the motif, in the quickness of color and of his impressions.

Among the tones of brown, the touches of ochre, the sections of earth and some pale or lively greens, erupted sparkles of ultra-marine, of lemon yellow, of black, of nuances of rose and orange, of flashes of vermillion, emerald, and violette. These paintings bear witness to the rich and luminous moments of his daily life, revealing his attention to the world, the finesse of his powers of perception. All these small paintings have an aplomb, a thoroughly assured equilibrium. They’re precision captured, the very essence of his vast and penetrating regard.

Stael sicily 12Nicolas de Staël, “Sicile, Vue d’Agrigente,” 1954. Oil on canvas, 114 x 146 cm. MG 4063, Musée de Grenoble. © Adagp, Paris, 2018. Photo: © Ville de Grenoble/Musée de Grenoble – J.L. Lacroix. Courtesy Culturespaces.

All that counts is color, the good fortune of being in the presence of a clear, fresh, and sparkling vision. When you never knew your father and such a body of thick matter dazzles you with its presence, it’s as if you have a real person standing in front of you.

On the steps of the inside stairway, to cast the grandeur of this space in relief, he’d nailed an immense Oceanic carpet of checkered material with geometric motifs, as majestic as an antique tapestry….

Stael colors 14Nicolas de Staël, “Agrigente,” 1953. Oil on canvas, 59 x 77,7 cm. Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, Hövikodden, Norway. © Adagp, Paris, 2018. Photo: © Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, Hövikodden, Norway. Courtesy Culturespaces.

To tame these rooms and instill in them a sense of security, as a kind of reaction to the violence of the dizzying and whipping wind liable to invade the house at any moment, he’d decided that each space would have its own distinct and powerful color….

In le Castelet as nowhere else — and despite his incessant comings and goings and the growing awareness that his passage on this earth was only temporary —  my father had taken the time necessary to beautify the place, in applying his austere aesthetic….

Stael hello world 7Nicolas de Staël, “Agrigente,” 1954. Oil on canvas, 60 x 81 cm. Private collection. Courtesy Applicat-Prazan, Paris. © Adagp, Paris, 2018. Photo:  © Comité Nicolas de Staël.

Even today, this house in Ménerbes preserves something of his spirit, its own distinct dimension — that certain something — which relentlessly places you alone in face of the space, in a singular independence vis-à-vis the world where, with time, the void that is the absence of this father is confounded with the expanse of the emptiness of the surrounding countryside, this overflowing space which inspires fear.

stael sicily passage 2Nicolas de Staël, “Paysage, Sicile,” 1953. Oil on canvas, 73 x 100 cm. Private collection. © Adagp, Paris, 2018. Photo: © Jean Louis Losi. Courtesy Culturespaces.

Stael all alone 8Nicolas de Staël, “Paysage de Provence,” 1953. Oil on canvas, 81 x 65 cm. Private collection. Courtesy Applicat-Prazan, Paris. © Adagp, Paris, 2018. Photo: © Applicat-Prazan.

In this landscape where the mineral perpetually dominates the vegetal, I understand today why the immense mural depicting the Luberon was one wall too many at a moment where his regard never stopped looking for an open horizon, where he agonized about his own limits — the limits of this infinity that he worked without pause to push back — before being pulled, like at every decisive moment of his existence, towards the sea and its horizon,  this eternal presence from which he’d once again drawn what he needed to be able to surpass the dimensions of the world and his own.

Tangiers, 2018

Stael Marseille 1Nicolas de Staël, “Marseille,” 1954. Oil on canvas, 80,5 x 60 cm. Private collection. Courtesy Applicat-Prazan, Paris. © Adagp. Paris, 2018. Photo: © Comité Nicolas de Staël.

Stael martigues 3Nicolas de Staël, “Les Martigues,” 1954. Oil on canvas, 61 x 50.5 cm. Private collection. Courtesy Applicat-Prazan, Paris. © Adagp, Paris, 2018. Photo: © Applicat-Prazan.

Stael Grignon 13Nicolas de Staël, “Grignan,” 1953. Oil on canvas, 14 x 22 cm. Private collection. Courtesy Nathan Fine Art Zurich. © Adagp, Paris, 2018. Photo: © Louis Losi.

Stael arbre 16Nicolas de Staël, “Arbre,” 1953. Oil on canvas,  22 x 33 cm.  Private collection. © Adagp, Paris. Photo: © Jean Louis Losi. Courtesy Culturespaces.

Paysage de Sicile: Agrigente, by Nicolas de StaëlNicolas de Staël, “Paysage de Sicile,” 1953. Oil on canvas,  87.5 x 129.5 cm. Private collection, deposited at  Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. © Adagp, Paris, 2018. Photo: © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.  Courtesy Culturespaces.

Stael red tree 19Nicolas de Staël, “Arbre rouge,” 1953. Oil on canvas,  46 x 61 cm. Private collection.  © Adagp, Paris, 2018. Photo:  © Christie’s. Courtesy Culturespaces.

Stael Agrigente againNicolas de Staël, “Agrigente,” 1953-1954. Oil on canvas, 60 x 81 cm. Painted at Ménerbes. Private collection. Courtesy Lefevre Fine Art, London. Photo: © Courtesy Lefevre Fine Art, London.

 

Un lieu Inaccessible

par Gustave de Staël
Co-commissaire de l’exposition
Extraits du catalogue de l’exposition

J’ai été libre comme l’air dans cette bâtisse du XVIe siècle où alternaient les impressions de nature et de peinture.

Au bout du village fortifié de Ménerbes, la vue plongeante depuis le Castelet livre l’espace entier et immense de la Provence. En l’acquérant, notre père voulait-il nous placer idéalement face à l’espace et au rayonnement mystérieux des couleurs du Sud, sur le chemin d’une dimension qu’il recherchait en peinture ? (…)

Cette architecture, flanquée d’un hameau, était une combinaison d’équilibres, d’accidents et de parties inachevées. La façade avait subi les intempéries pendant des siècles. Cette construction dressée contre le vent était à l’image du défi que s’était imposé mon père ; et quand un peintre est obsédé par une vue ou par une idée, aucun vent, aucun froid ne peut l’arrêter.

Une fois gravie l’une des pentes en fer à cheval escaladées – qui rappelaient le rythme des touches grises maçonnées de sa peinture –, une fois passé devant la chapelle en suivant le parterre de galets, je franchissais la porte d’entrée pour me trouver au pied du vieil escalier en pierre. Il emmenait presque sans effort, parce que les marches en étaient excessivement usées, jusqu’aux pièces hautes et claires du premier étage, qui comprenaient l’atelier où j’entrais avec une attention soutenue pour faire face à la détermination, à l’indépendance et aux visions multiples qu’offraient ses peintures.

Elles étaient posées sans ordre, à même le sol, le long des murs, sans rien, ne serait-ce qu’un cadre, qui aurait permis d’avoir un recul sur ce qu’elles racontaient. Quelques-unes, prises au hasard, toutes couleurs dehors, étaient accrochées aux murs – comme le grand paysage de Sicile au ciel en aplat vert marocain qu’il avait continué à ouvrir à coups de truelle.

Ce tableau me projetait dans une accélération et un rythme de vie plus rapide – avec cette peinture, un autre monde s’ouvrait devant moi, totalement habité, autrement plus présent, autrement plus réel, pur et coloré. Cette peinture m’interrogeait sur la course effrénée de mon père vers ce réel éclatant de vie. Ce tableau clamait l’espace brut, net, tranché, le choc de la présence, avec une profondeur qui nous précipitait vers les confins de la vie. (…)

Tous ces petits tableaux sur la cheminée de son atelier représentaient autant de respirations, de notes vives et fraîches prises rapidement sur le motif, dans la vitesse de la couleur et de ses impressions. Parmi les tons de brun, les touches d’ocre, les pans de terre et quelques verts pâles ou vifs, étincelaient des pointes d’outremer, de jaune citron, de noir, des nuances de rose, d’orangé, des éclats de vermillon, d’émeraude et de violet.

Ces tableaux témoignaient des moments lumineux et riches de son quotidien, révélaient son attention au monde, sa finesse de perception.

Toutes ces petites peintures avaient un aplomb, un équilibre totalement assuré. Elles étaient la justesse captée, la réduction de son regard vaste et perçant.

Il n’y avait que les couleurs qui comptaient, le bonheur d’être en présence d’une vision claire, fraîche, pétillante. Quand vous n’avez pas connu votre père et qu’un tel corps de matières épaisses vous éblouit de sa présence, vous avez véritablement quelqu’un devant vous.

Dans la montée de l’escalier intérieur, pour mettre en relief la grandeur de cet espace, il avait cloué un immense tapa d’Océanie aux motifs géométriques en damier noir et blanc, aussi majestueux qu’une tapisserie ancienne. (…)

Pour apprivoiser ces pièces et y apporter un sentiment de sécurité, en réaction contre la violence du vent entêtant et si sonore qui pouvait à tout moment envahir la maison, il avait décidé que chacune aurait sa couleur distincte et forte. (…)

Au Castelet et nulle part ailleurs, malgré ses incessantes allées et venues et la conscience de plus en plus vive qu’il n’était que de passage, mon père avait pris le temps nécessaire à l’embellissement du lieu, en lui apportant son sens esthétique austère. (…)

Jusqu’à aujourd’hui, cette maison de Ménerbes conserve quelque chose de son esprit, une dimension à part – ce rien – qui ne cesse de vous mettre seul face à l’espace, dans une indépendance singulière vis-à-vis du monde où, avec le temps, l’absence de ce père se confond avec l’étendue du vide environnant, ce trop-plein d’espace qui effraie.

Dans ce paysage où le minéral prend toujours le pas sur le végétal, je comprends aujourd’hui que l’immense muraille que représente le Luberon ait été un mur de trop à un moment où son regard ne cessait de chercher un horizon dégagé, où il s’agaçait de ses propres limites – des limites de cet infini qu’il travaillait sans relâche à repousser –, avant d’être attiré, comme à chaque moment décisif de son existence, vers la mer et son horizon – cette présence éternelle où il avait puisé à nouveau de quoi dépasser les dimensions du monde et les siennes.

Tanger, janvier 2018